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Labour Ministers invite Nicolas Schmit to meeting

Labour Ministers invite Nicolas Schmit to meeting

| Text: Kerstin Ahlberg, editor EU & Arbetsrätt, photo: Janek Skarzynski

Nordic governments are joining forces to explain the Nordic labour market model to EU lawmakers. The Labour Ministers have sent a letter to the new Commissioner Nicolas Schmit, inviting him to a meeting in Copenhagen in early April to discuss the Nordic countries’ chosen priorities.

The European Commission published two documents in January detailing how it imagines putting into practice the principles contained in the so-called social pillar. One was a communication headlined "A strong social Europe for just transitions', the other a letter to the social partners on an EU level to ask them about their views on the Commission’s plans to present proposed legislation for European minimum wages.

The latter is not a finished bill, but an explanation for why the Commission believes such rules are needed and what problems they would solve. The purpose is not to seek to harmonise directly the level of minimum wage for the whole of the EU. The rules are also not meant to establish a uniform method for setting the minimum wage. In particular, the aim is not to introduce a statutory minimum wage in countries with high coverage of collective agreements where wages are exclusively set through collective bargaining. 

Finally, the Commission asks whether the social partners recognise the reality as described, and whether they, in that case, might consider to try to negotiate an agreement on some of the issues it presents. 

The Commission always has to consult the social partners in this way before proposing legislation in the social policy field. If the partners say yes and manage to enter into an agreement, this can then be made binding through a directive which member states must implement. 

It is not news that the idea of European minimum wages has created unease in the Nordic countries, particularly in Denmark and Sweden. The seemingly meek consultation document does not appear to have calmed the nerves of those who are already worried. Despite all assurances to the contrary, employers’ organisations, trade unions and government representatives fear that such rules would undermine the national collective agreement systems. 

What is the problem? Any assurances that it would absolutely be possible to regulate wages only through collective agreements also in future is not sufficient for them. What the Commission proposes is still some kind of legal instrument which determines how the minimum wage should relate to market wages in a country in order to be “adequate”, and how often it should be revised. If the EU adopts binding rules on this, it would circumscribe the social partners’ freedom to act.

Member states who do not have generally applicable collective agreements (for instance Denmark and Sweden) would probably also be forced to adopt complementing legislation so that “all” workers are guaranteed at least this wage. 

In order to explain the Nordic countries’ points of view, the Labour Ministers have invited the Commissioner responsible, Nicolas Schmit, to their meeting in Copenhagen on 2 April. The letter is written in a positive tone, and welcomes several of the Commission’s planned initiatives:

  • Based on Nordic experiences, the Labour Ministers for instance look forward to continued cooperation and the sharing of experiences on the topic of labour market adjustments, as well as on “the future of work”, including the platform economy.
  • They also support the Commission’s ambition to adopt a new EU strategy for health and safety at work. The promoting of health and safety should be based on the latest research while involving the social partners.
  • In a Nordic spirit, it is also essential to strengthen the social dialogue both nationally and at EU-level, including by encouraging higher union density and promoting the possibility for the social partners to find solutions to labour market challenges, many of which require nationally tailored measures. Therefore, the ministers write, we very much welcome the assurances you gave inter alia at the hearing in the European Parliament of your respect for systems based on collective bargaining, i.e. that any future initiative on minimum wage will not interfere with labour market models where wages are regulated by collective agreements. 
  • Finally, the Labour Ministers stress that it is imperative to strengthen gender equality in the EU. Therefore they welcome the Commission’s plan to set forth a gender equality strategy and suggest that Nicolas Schmit contributes actively to the realisation of this. The strategy should have clear goals, be followed up, and its implementation evaluated and reviewed within the Council of Ministers.

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