IR Notes 144 – 17 June 2020
  A question for…
Isabelle Ferreras, sociologist, senior tenured fellow (Maître de recherches) of the Belgian National Science Foundation (F.N.R.S., Brussels), professor at the University of Louvain, and associate researcher at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program

In an op-ed entitled “Work: Democratize, Decommodify, Remediate” (*), you call for companies to be democratised, by transforming works councils, including European Works Councils, into a “second chamber” governing alongside the board of directors, and from which top management must secure a majority in order to have its strategy approved: one body representing the interests of workers, the other those of shareholders. Having the works council as a body whose remit extends further than exchanging information and consultation between employees and management, and even one that constitutes a co-decision-making body, as is the case in some countries, is an idea that interests the European Trade Union Confederation at the highest level. How can we justify a change like this?
The Covid-19 crisis has revealed to everyone a reality that – until now – some people have sought to ignore: the vital investment that workers agree to make in companies, whether they are engaged in food production, working as carers or performing a humble task like checking out goods at a supermarket till. These workers have taken the risks of leaving home, using public transport and going out to do their job. Such tasks, which previously carried no recognition and were often performed in return for low wages, have now been recognised as “essential”. This economic crisis has highlighted a fundamental truth: namely that without investment in labour, there can be no company. Yet at the moment, we are functioning with a model in which only the capital contributor is regarded as the investor and risk-taker. Yet in our economic model, the risks taken by the capital investor are limited to his/her contribution, whereas workers – as demonstrated irrefutably by this crisis – are taking unlimited risks, in order to feed and protect our citizens, both during lockdown and in normal times. Workers face a variety of risks: damaging their own physical and mental health, exposing themselves to stress and even the risk of losing their life. We need to collectively recognise that we have misconceived a reality here, and that this has had major consequences: despite being essential, this investment in labour does not guarantee any access to corporate government.

So we now need to ask ourselves how the company, with its institutions such as they exist, can further the democratisation process that began at the end of the 19th century, with the right to collective bargaining – which is a way of delegating the task of defending workers’ interests to representatives, so that greater influence can be exerted in negotiations – and that subsequently, at the end of the Second World War, witnessed another major innovation: the works council. However, the voice of this institution still remains too weak. We need to go further than granting the right to information and consultation, and allow workers and their representatives to influence the company’s government. From an analytical viewpoint, we need to grasp the fact that a company is made up of two constitutive parts: one that permits investment in labour and one that contributes capital. Yet the people who make up the first constitutive part remain on the periphery, and are denied a role in the company’s government, even though it is they who constitute the fabric of the company.

The issue we now face is that of granting the constitutive part currently denied a role in the company’s government, the right to influence that government. The political history of bicameral democratic transitions shows us the double majority route that should apply to the corporate decision-making process: when it comes to approving the company’s business strategy or its choice of management team, the works council, or the European Works Council, is a body on which management should secure a majority vote before a decision is made, just as it must secure a majority vote from the board of directors. We argue in this op-ed that workers should be allowed to collectively approve or reject the plans put forward by their management, both for reasons of economic efficiency and of democratic justice.

(*) This op-ed was signed by more than 3,000 scientists from more than 650 universities and appeared in 43 national newspapers on all 5 continents, on 16 May this year. It has been signed by more than 5,500 people (such as Norbert Kluge, of Hans Böckler Stiftung; Isabelle Schömann, Confederal Secretary of ETUC and economist Thomas Picketty). It is available on line, in 28 languages, and can still be signed by individuals and organisations.

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Lead story
Further consultation on a fair minimum wage

On 3 June, the European Commission launched the second-phase consultation of European social partners on “a possible action addressing the challenges related to fair minimum wages”. The consultation document asks the social partners in particular to express an opinion regarding the choice of legal instrument to be used: either a (binding) Directive or a Council Recommendation (which is non-binding but would involve multilateral supervision among Member States within the framework of the European Semester), unless they would prefer to embark on the process of negotiating a European agreement, which is unlikely. The Commission has an overarching goal “to ensure that every worker in our Union has a fair minimum wage” allowing “for a decent living wherever they work.” This goal has become even more relevant due to the economic and social crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. The goal covers all workers, regardless of the type of contract or form of employment relationship with their employer. It also includes the self-employed and those in the public sectors. The initiative seeks to propose actions that will help to achieve this goal, such as promoting the role of collective bargaining in setting minimum wages and increasing the number of workers covered by a collective agreement, possibly by using extension mechanisms, so that their effects can be broadened to include all workers and all employers in a particular sector. It could also state that minimum wage setting should be guided by “clear and stable criteria” and that “national frameworks should also provide for updates to be conducted at reasonably frequent and regular intervals”. These national frameworks could offer non-binding reference values as a median wage threshold or define a reference for an average basket of goods and services. The Commission would like to strengthen the role of social partners, even in countries where the minimum wage is set by law; to reduce the options open to employers for avoiding paying the minimum wage; and to strengthen the authorities responsible for ensuring that the minimum wage is paid. The social partners have until 20 September to submit their position to the Commission, following which it will be able to submit a proposal for a directive or a recommendation by the end of the year. There has been a positive reaction from the European Trade Union Confederation, which is hoping for a more specific goal that would raise the minimum wage to “a level which is at least 60% of the median wage and that is also adequate for a basket of goods and services, agreed at national level with unions and employers.” (see press release).
See also: European Commission press release and section 4. Studies and reports

1. European Union

“Biological Agents” directive includes Covid-19 : Commission Directive (EU) 2020/739 of 3 June 2020 amending Annex III to Directive 2000/54/EC as regards the inclusion of SARS-CoV-2 in the list of biological agents known to infect humans, has appeared in the OJEU. Covid-19 has been classified in group 3 and not in group 4, i.e. that of the most dangerous viruses (see Commission factsheet). This decision has been denounced by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and by a number of MEPs, who have lodged an objection to its classification in group 3. On 11 June, the Commission and the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs agreed to maintain the classification in group 3, in return for a number of commitments given by the European Commission. Accordingly, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, declared that the Commission 1) would strongly encourage States to ensure that written instructions are provided to all workers who are exposed to Covid-19, 2) will assess the need to amend the Biological Agents Directive, following the lessons learned during the pandemic to ensure better preparedness and response (Parliament press release). According to ETUC, which has expressed its satisfaction with this compromise, Nicolas Schmit has also promised to start work on a new European health and safety strategy (see ETUC press release). The MEPs’ objection was rejected in a vote (35 against, 5 for and 15 abstentions), so the directive was adopted and is now in force. Member States must now adopt it into their domestic law by no later than 24 November 2020.


  • Reform of road transport sector : On 8 June, Transport Committee MEPs from the European Parliament approved a reform of the road transport sector. This “mobility package”, which contains three legislative texts, covering posting of drivers, their rest times and better enforcement of cabotage rules. The Council adopted the reform on 7 April, so all that remains is for the Parliament to adopt this reform at a plenary meeting at the July session, to open the way for its final adoption.
    See also the Parliament press releaseEN, with links to the texts approved in April.

Case law

No special leave granted during rest periods : The Court of Justice has pronounced judgment on a Spanish case brought by three retail industry trade-union federations against two retail chains (DIA, Twins Alimentación). The case concerned the special leave granted by the collective agreement applicable to both companies, permitting employees to take one or more days’ leave at the time of a family event (a wedding, the birth of child, or a close relative being hospitalised or undergoing a surgical operation, etc.). The question at issue was to determine – in cases where such events take place during the employee’s four weeks’ paid annual leave or during their weekly rest period – whether such rest periods should be extended by the duration of the special leave or alternatively, whether the employee can postpone some or all of the special paid leave to which they are entitled. The Court could have applied its case law to sick leave that is taken during rest periods (CJEU, 30 June 2016, case C-178/15, Sobczyszyn) and taken the view that the family event thwarts the purpose of annual leave entitlement, which is to enable a worker to rest and to enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure. In this case, it would have agreed to a postponement of the paid leave in question. However, it chose to decide otherwise, and rejected the arguments of the trade unions. The Court explained that: “Since the purpose of the paid special leave established by the provisions at issue in the main proceedings is solely to enable workers to take time off from work in order to meet certain specific needs or obligations that require their personal presence, that leave is inextricably linked to working time as such, and consequently workers will not have recourse to such leave during weekly rest periods or periods of paid annual leave. Accordingly, that special leave cannot be regarded as comparable to sick leave”. Consequently, postponement is not possible (CJEU, 4 June 2020, case C-588/18, Federacion de Trabajadores Independientes de Comercio e.a.- Fetico).

Sectoral social dialogue

  • Metalworking: The European social partners in the metalworking industry have adopted a joint position in favour of “an ambitious plan for a fair and collective recovery, that strengthens the unique industrial ecosystem in Europe and builds an industry that is resilient and sustainable offering good jobs”. “Social dialogue must remain the compass for the implementation” of this recovery plan, the signatories add.

2. Member States

Debating an increase in the minimum wage : The German Trade Union Confederation DGB commissioned a survey, which shows that 78% of Germans would be in favour of an increase in the minimum wage to 12 euros an hour, compared to the current figure of 9.35 euros, which has been in force since 1 January 2020. The DGB plans to make its voice heard in the discussions that will be taking place between now and the autumn with a view to setting the minimum wage level (see press release). In a study, the WSI Institute of the Hans Böckler Foundation (Editor’s Note: the research institute linked to the DGB) expresses the view that a gradual increase to 12 euros is “perfectly reasonable in economic and social terms”, and would still be below the threshold of 60% of the median wage (12.21 euros). The study emphasises that the ratio of the minimum wage to the median wage in Germany fell from 48.3% in 2015, when the statutory minimum wage was introduced, to 45.6% in 2018.
See also: a study performed by France’s Centre d’études de l’emploi et du travail (CNAM-CEET), which emphasises that despite an encouraging reduction in the number of poorly paid jobs in Germany, the benefits of the reform to the statutory minimum wage continue to be unequally distributed, depending on the types of job and of employee concerned.


Extending the leave granted in the event of the death of a child : Law no. 2020-692 of 8 June 2020 enhancing workers’ rights and support for families following the death of a child has been published. This law: 1) Extends the amount of leave granted in the event of the death of a child, from five to seven days for the parents of a child aged under 25 or people who are “genuinely and permanently” responsible for a young person aged under 25, which covers blended families. 2) Creates an additional eight days’ parental bereavement leave, which can be taken at any time up to one year following the date of the child’s death, and does not have to be taken as one single block. 3/ Creates a 13-week period of protection against redundancy following the child’s death. 4/ Extends the mechanism whereby company employees can donate rest days to their fellow employees who have suffered the loss of a child.


  • Recourse to teleworking : A survey performed by Italy’s main trade union confederation CGIL and the Di Vittorio Foundation, involving more than 6,000 employees, (see CGIL press release) emphasises that overall, 60% of people questioned would like to continue the experience of “smart working” (teleworking) even after the emergency has come to an end, whereas 22% would not, with women being less favourable to the idea. They “are more heavily penalised and discriminated against, both in terms of personal relationships and professionally”, explains Susanna Camusso, who is the CGIL’s head of Gender Policy. “We need rules to ensure that this really does bring about smart working, and does not simply see Fordist work moved into the home”.

3. Companies
European works councils

Renegotiation : On 30 January, the French chocolate and confectionery producer Cémoi (3,300 employees including 2,200 in France) renewed its European Works Council agreement with the French trade unions only, as the trade-union representatives of the three sites located in Germany, Spain and the UK did not want to take part in the negotiations. There are 14 seats on the Council, including 11 for France.

  • Solidarity: the Safran European Works Council has posted a video clip in support of European employees whose job is at risk, to promote the message “together, we stand stronger”.

European company

New agreement : in a press release, the French trade union FCE-CFDT announces the signature of a new European Works Council agreement to accompany the energy group Total‘s conversion into a European company. The text maintains the 52 seats provided for in the initial 2005 agreement, 50% of which are reserved for French members. Each country with at least 150 employees has one seat. Ten countries with a smaller workforce will be combined into three groups, with each one appointing a representative in rotation. An information and consultation process is provided for where two group sites are concerned (instead of two companies, as was previously the case). The three sectoral committees are being granted additional resources. An appendix provides for specific representation for the Hutchinson subsidiary (20,700 employees in the EU) in the form of a European discussion space, while at the same time allowing Hutchinson representatives to sit on the Total EWC.


A meeting with the European Commission : On 3 June, at the request of the IndustriAll Europe union federation, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, met with representatives of IndustriAll Europe’s three Spanish trade unions represented at Nissan (CC.OO, USO and UGT), and with the trade union coordinator of the Nissan EWC, to discuss the future of the three Catalan plants (3,000 employees), whose closure has been announced by the car maker. Following this meeting, which was described as “constructive”, in a letter, the union federation called on the Commission to: 1) make Nissan and other multinational car manufacturers aware of their legal obligations to inform and consult workers before taking any decision concerning them; 2) set up a dedicated Nissan task-force to support the employees and the region in question by helping the (local and national) authorities and the trade unions to make use of all existing EU legal and financial instruments (see IndustriALL Europe press release).

4.Studies and reports

European minimum wage : The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) has published a Policy Brief advocating that the minimum wage should be set at 60% of the median wage in each country, while at the same time noting that this target is sometimes insufficient. Consequently, in countries in which a high proportion of workers earn very low wages, “the whole wage structure, and therefore the median wage, is very low; therefore, a minimum wage of 60 per cent of the national median wage may still not be enough to ensure a decent living standard.” For its part, on 4 June, Eurofound published its annual review of minimum wages, which notes that, despite an upward trend seen since the beginning of the 2000s, minimum wages in the majority of countries remain below 60% or even below 50% of median wages, especially in the central and eastern Member States. In the EU, 7 out of 10 minimum wage workers report at least some difficulty in making ends meet, as compared to less than 5 out of 10 other workers.