IR Notes 140 – 22 April 2020
  A question for...
Christer Thörnqvist, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Skövde

How are the Swedish social partners reacting to the government’s policy for combatting the Covid-19 crisis, which is essentially based on recommendations for social distancing without putting the economy on hold?
The government does not want to bring the economy to a standstill for fear that after a period of lockdown, the country will suffer a further wave of contamination, which will be even worse than the first one. This is constantly being explained to the population. The government has therefore simply made a number of recommendations, such as observing social distancing, people over 70 years of age remaining locked down and encouraging teleworking. This policy is approved of by employers, who appreciate the fact that the economy is continuing to function. On the trade unions’ side, the only concerns are for professions that are directly exposed, such as healthcare professionals, and staff caring for the elderly or for children. Discussions have sometimes become heated on the issue of the lack of protection, particularly with regard to masks. In these sectors, as well as in the retail sector, the trade unions have demanded individual protection, which employers have provided where possible. For example, on buses or trams, it was agreed that passengers should not use the front door, in order to protect drivers. In shops, protective mechanisms have been installed to protect cashiers. All of this was done very quickly, without reaching formal collective agreements, because the social partners do not have the time to negotiate. On the whole, the government’s recommendations are being well observed, thanks to the trust that exists between Swedish citizens and their culture of mutual social supervision. As a result, those who do not follow the instructions are reprimanded on social media! Confidence in the government has increased and, as far as the trade unions are concerned, the fact that the Social Democratic Prime Minister is the former leader of the metalworkers’ union, is a reassuring factor.

  A really good idea
Take part in the Eurofound survey on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has launched a major e-survey, in all EU languages, to produce an initial assessment of how the Covid-19 crisis is impacting on employment and on the working conditions of European workers. The IR Notes editorial team invites its readers to take part in this survey (which will take 10 minutes of your time).

  Who we are?

IR Notes
is a fortnightly newsletter produced by IR Share and its network of experts, and is available in several European languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish). It offers Europe-wide monitoring of employment law, labour relations and employment policy. It is available by subscription for 18 euros per month.

The team This issue was produced by Sophia Reisecker, Frédéric Turlan and Aimee Waldon.
Find out more about the  IR Share team on our website

Subscribe to IR Notes Via the 
IR Share website or by calling us on:
+33 (0)6 81 41 53 95 or 

Legal notice. Publisher: IR Share SARL - 5, Les Compères - 89520 Fontenoy, France – Tel.: +33 (0)6 81 41 53 95 – share capital 1,500 euros – commercial register (RCS Auxerre): 512 567 959. Managing editor: Frédéric Turlan. Hosting: Ideal prod - 14 rue  Auguste Morel - 89100 Sens – France - Tel.: + 33 (0)3 86 83 21 21. CPPAP no.: 0621 Z 93933.


IR Share is a privately- owned, independent, apolitical company whose aim is to inform and assist all players involved in social dialogue within and outside Europe. It has been the correspondent organisation for France of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions since 2009.


Lead story
Will Covid-19 mark the opening of a new era of social glaciation?

The European Commission will present a new work programme at the end of April, to take account of the Covid-19 crisis. The media are already widely reporting that the Green Deal, which is the Commission’s flagship project destined to accompany the EU’s ecological conversion with a view to tackling the climate crisis, may be called into question. The economic emergency is taking precedence over the climate emergency. The same line of reasoning prevails in the field of social affairs. In a letter to the President of the European Council, the European employers’ organisation BusinessEurope calls for “greater flexibility regarding the application of the present regulatory framework” in all areas. In addition, “there needs to be a lot of flexibility in terms of deadlines for public consultations or application dates of newly agreed rules”. Moreover, “envisaged deadlines should be substantially extended” and any “new legislation should be carefully assessed taking into account the current crisis situation, to avoid further substantive pressure on businesses that would jeopardize their existence.”  Consequently, while BusinessEurope definitely supports the SURE initiative, which is intended to help Member States to finance a system of short-time working (see IR Notes 139, Lead story), it emphasises that this is “exceptional support” given in “exceptional circumstances”, but that it cannot be “considered as a precedent for a permanent EU unemployment insurance scheme, to which we remain opposed.” This position, which calls on the Union to focus exclusively on Europe’s economic economy, is similar to that promoted in the early 2000s, when BusinessEurope argued that European social legislation should be frozen to enable the new Member States of Central and Eastern Europe to complete their integration process, in 2004 and 2007. This led to an era of social glaciation lasting through to the second half of Jean-Claude Juncker’s term of office (2014-2019). In light of the economic crisis resulting from Covid-19, any initiative that might increase labour costs is therefore likely to face attack from all sides. The European gender equality strategy (accompanied by the adoption of binding wage transparency measures), the European minimum wage, the new European occupational health and safety strategy, and even enhanced protection for platform workers are all subjects which, in the view of some, need to be tackled urgently. As a result, some very convincing arguments will have to be put forward if social justice and a fair ecological transition are to feature at the heart of the European project.

1. European Union

Sectoral social dialogue

Digitalisation in the electricity sector : On 9 April, the European social partners in the electricity sector launched a framework of action to accompany the digitalisation process. This framework sets out the actions to be taken by 2022, in particular that of providing guidelines for a socially responsible digital transition, in the case of restructuring due to the introduction of enhanced digitalisation processes. The signatories wish to promote social dialogue at all levels, in order to find solutions that will ensure electricity workers’ health, well-being and work-life balance, including socially responsible arrangements on remote working and the right to disconnect. In a joint position paper accompanying the framework of action, they emphasise that “the European economy is going through a major turbulence due to the COVID-19 crisis” and that “the implementation of new technologies and business models can support a swift recovery of the electricity sector from the upcoming economic downturn”. The signatories “are committed to shaping the future of work through a just digital transformation that benefits everybody”.

Joint statements on the Covid-19 crisis: : The European social partners in several sectors of activity have recently issued joint statements linked to the Covid-19 crisis:

  • Telecommunications: A joint position paper on the Covid-19 emergency was adopted on 7 April. It states that companies in the sector “are making the ‘work-from-home’ option largely available to their employees”. The signatories believe that important lessons will be learned from this experience. They “will endeavour to make this new way of working available to maximise the positive environmental, business and work/life balance benefits that have been learned during the emergency”.

  • Food and beverage industry: Guidelines to protect the health and safety of workers were adopted on 9 April. The purpose of this joint document is to identify minimum standards to be applied in food businesses during this emergency period.

2. Member States

Employment tribunals to operate via videoconferencing : The Federal Ministry of Work and Social Affairs has presented a bill intended to allow employment tribunals and social courts to continue to operate during the Covid-19 epidemic. The two lay judges who sit alongside the professional judge on German employment tribunals (one of whom represents employees, the other employers) will be able to take part in the hearing or deliberation remotely. The judges should also be able to instruct the parties involved, their representatives and advisers, and any witnesses and expert witnesses, to attend the hearing via videoconferencing, to the extent that this is reasonable.
Works council meetings: On 23 March, the Federal Ministry of Work and Social Affairs also published a circular, which is not legally binding but advocates organising works council meetings via videoconferencing or conference calls.


Retail industry: For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the social partners have negotiated an agreement whereby retail workers will receive special protection (see agreement). Opening hours have been restricted, with shops closing by 19:00 at the latest. Employees are protected from infection by plexiglass panels in front of the cash desks, and by wearing masks and gloves. By government decree, all customers have been required to wear a mask since the beginning of April (see press releases issued by the trade union federation GPA-djp and by UNI Europa). The unions have also been demanding a tax-free monetary corona allowance for all key workers. No progress has yet been made on this issue, but many companies are already offering forms of non-financial remuneration, such as vouchers for use in the retail sector.

  • Short-time working: With retroactive effect from 1 March, Austrian companies can apply to benefit from short-time working arrangements for a period of three months (which can be extended for a further three months). Depending on their gross wage, employees will receive between 80 and 90% of their net wage for this period. Companies are being reimbursed through State aid. Employee representatives must give their agreement to the request for short-time working. On 20 April, around 900,000 people were on short-time work. (see press release issued by the government).


  • Enhancing benefits payable : The tripartite agreement signed on 14 March this year was amended on 30 March to raise the level of replacement income. The amount payable by the State will still represent 75% of the total remuneration paid to employees, but the ceiling is being raised from 23,000 to 30,000 DKK (i.e. from approx. 3,080 to 4,000 euros) per month. Companies will still have to pay the remaining 25% of these wages. The arrangements have been extended and will remain in force from 9 March to 9 June. Moreover, the so-called “225 hours” rule – whereby beneficiaries of welfare assistance have to prove their availability for the employment market by working at least 225 hours during the course of a year, failing which their benefits will be cut – will be suspended for the period from 9 March to 9 June.

3. Companies

European Works Councils’ reactions to the Covid-19 crisis : further to IR Notes no. 138 we again contacted EWC secretaries to ask them about the consequences of the pandemic. Here is a summary of our analysis, which is available in full, both in English and in French. We encourage you to make contact and tell us about your own initiatives and experiences, so that we can enrich our analysis (

  • All face-to-face meetings now frozen. In practice, all face-to-face meetings are now being postponed, regardless of whether they are plenary meetings (LafargeHolcim, GSK), select committees, working groups (Generali) or training courses (Carrefour). The same goes for renegotiations of agreements (ArcelorMittal).

  • Remote meetings gather momentum. EWCs are setting up conference calls, often at weekly intervals. This is the case with LafargeHolcim where each week, a conference call, with simultaneous French-English translation, is held between the secretary, trade union coordinators and the Group HRD, as well as the Europe HRD. One conference call with members of the EWC’s health and safety committee and the managers in charge of health and safety at group level was devoted to the Covid-19 crisis. The management of the construction group Eiffage arranged a joint conference call for the executive committees of the EWC and of the France group council. At Carrefour, explains EWC secretary Michel Enguelz, “we requested and secured agreement for meetings of the select committee (6 members) to be held”. Three meetings have already been held, on 30 March, 10 April and 21 April. Pierre Goulaieff, secretary of the Capgemini international works council, explains that the frequency of executive committee meetings, which are normally held at the rate of one per month, has been doubled during the crisis period. At Generali, a Skype call between the EWC secretary, the deputy secretary and their HR opposite numbers at Group level has been organised every Monday since March. A weekly meeting is also being held between the management and the secretariat of the Axa EWC (10 members). This enhanced social dialogue is being explicitly emphasised by management at some companies. Thomas Buberl, CEO of the Axa group, has commented that social dialogue is absolutely essential in the present circumstances: it will continue through this crisis and into the next phase. Benoît de Rufray, Eiffage CEO, says “the difference in our performance compared to our various competitors will not lie in how long our business comes to a halt but in our capacity to gradually return to a state of normality, which in turn will depend, among other things, on the quality of our dialogue”.

  • Interpreting is being used but is not yet always running smoothly. Some councils are making use of their company’s existing tools (such as Microsoft Teams, Webex and Skype.) This is effective when English is the working language (Axa, Dassault Systèmes, Capgemini, GSK, Orange) but if it is not, the situation becomes more complicated. “The executive committee’s meetings with management are organised using Teams, but without interpreting, which poses a difficulty for the Spanish member”, warns Philippe Luppo, Eiffage EWC secretary. Hélène Debegnac, EWC secretary at LafargeHolcim, comments that “holding a telephone meeting with simultaneous interpreting is acceptable when only two languages are involved. On the other hand, things get very complicated where several languages are used, and in this case it’s essential to receive written documentation in advance”. “We tried holding an executive committee meeting using Teams for videoconferencing, which worked well, in conjunction with the Interactio system, where interpreting is conveyed via a smartphone”, explains Martine Peyronnet, EWC secretary of Bel. The concern is that it worked smoothly for just a few minutes during the preparatory session, so the meeting with management had to be cancelled”. Sometimes people just have to rely on doing their best to muddle through. “Using Jitsi, we tried out a conf-call between different members of the select committee, explains Carole Bourner, EWC secretary of Generali, but it’s far from straightforward as not all members speak English”. However, we are also receiving feedback on successful multilingual meetings. For example, at Carrefour, meetings are held via videoconferencing, using the Google Meet system, with interpreting provided from French into Spanish and Dutch. Meetings between the Generali select committee and management also work very well with interpreting, and the same applies at Veolia.

  • Seeking information on the ground. EWCs are sending out questionnaires to their members, either as electronic files (Safran, Legrand) or making them available on line (Eiffage), or in Excel spreadsheet format (Generali). Other EWCs are organising meetings, with interpreting provided, between select committee members (Generali) or between the executive committee and a number of EWC members (Eiffage). These direct exchanges of information are helping to make up for what is sometimes perceived as a shortage of information provided by management (ArcelorMittal, Bel, GSK). Exchanges take place daily (in English) between members of the Safran EWC, who also meet twice a week with management. The search for information may be carried out in conjunction with management. For example, on 20 April, Axa group’s management and its EWC launched a global ‘Checking’ survey, using 4 questions to gauge employees’ reactions, to assess the impact of the current situation on their mental health and working habits, and to enhance the support provided at group level.

  • New inequalities in treatment are emerging. The various ways in which short-time working is being applied in different countries, with significant disparities in levels of replacement income and how leave is being taken, whether forced or otherwise, are giving rise to problems. At Carrefour, “we have seen practices varying widely from one country to another, especially as regards opening days and times”, notes Michel Enguelz, EWC secretary. “It has not been possible everywhere to ensure stores remain closed on Sundays or to reduce their opening hours, in the way France has managed to”. Another difference in treatment has been the payment of a bonus (free of tax and social security contributions) to Carrefour French employees; this has not been replicated in other countries where such a bonus is not part of the national measures implemented.

  • Tensions over dividend payments. One particularly controversial subject is that of distribution of share dividends. When questioned by its EWC, Eiffage management confirmed that the company’s board had decided to waive the 2019 dividends due to be paid in 2020. On the other hand, the LafargeHolcim EWC sent “a letter protesting against the distribution of a dividend identical to that paid in 2019” to the group’s CEO, to the Chairman of the Board and to members of the Executive Committee, says EWC secretary Hélène Debegnac. Discussions have also taken place at Generali, which has decided to pay one half of the proposed dividends, while at the same time setting up a solidarity fund and not imposing short-time working.

> See also: We have recently published a number of agreements signed in 2019, including at the food company Savencia (22,900 employees worldwide), together with a supplemental agreement dated 16 October 2019.

Transnational agreement

Analysis of the human impact of digital projects : On 17 March, the management of the Belgian chemicals group Solvay (24,000 employees) and its two transnational workforce representation bodies – the European Works Council and the Solvay Global Forum – signed a Global Framework Agreement on Digital Transformation. As far as we are aware, this is the first global agreement entirely devoted to this subject.  The agreement is applicable to any “project of significant importance” which implements or introduces a new technology. The main phases of implantation should be an opportunity for a process of information and consultation between management and employee representatives at the appropriate level according to the magnitude of the project (global, European, national and/or site). This process will take place “before the decision to introduce a new technology in the workplace” is taken. In addition, as far upstream as possible, management will initiate a systematic process of human impact analysis (on mental health, workload, monitoring or surveillance functions, etc.). The agreement advocates using “face-to-face communication, either in person or through videoconferencing technologies”. After pointing out how easy it is for employees to connect with network servers and colleagues “anytime, anywhere”, the agreement adds that “this flexibility is sometimes to Solvay’s advantage but must never be exploited without respect for employee well-being”. At the same time, “the changing structure of family life has meant that many employees are demanding more flexible working arrangements”. Several provisions seek to develop teleworking in response to this need for a good work-life balance. The text adds that, in response to this need, Solvay “actively supports the general principle of disconnecting outside working hours.”