Commissioner Schmit’s keynote speech at the inauguration of the European Labour Authority

(Source: European Commission)

Dear Ministers, Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour to be in Bratislava today to celebrate together the official opening of the European Labour Authority.

This is a pivotal moment. As the watchdog for fair labour mobility across the Union, ELA has a fundamental role in promoting and enforcing fairness in our single market.

I am proud to have been a small part of the ELA story since its inception: first as a labour Minister, then a Member of the European Parliament, and now seeing it grow under my portfolio as the Commissioner for jobs and social rights.

Today’s conference is an opportunity to discuss the future of labour mobility and the ELA’s role, taking into account various ongoing challenges and opportunities.

As President von der Leyen stressed in her State of the Union speech, Europe’s social dimension must be fully embedded in the recovery from the pandemic. It must be green, it must be digital and it must be fair, ensuring “decent jobs, fairer working conditions, better healthcare and better balance in people’s lives.”

The pandemic has been, and continues to be, a major test for public health, for our societies and for our economies as a whole.

It has exposed and deepened existing inequalities, many of which were inherited from previous crises and ongoing megatrends: the green and digital transitions, globalisation, and demographic change.

It has also had an enormous impact on attitudes towards work, working conditions and work-life balance.

Many countries around the world, including in Europe, are facing labour shortages.

Instead of rushing back to their former employment, some workers have set new goals, they have new priorities in their lives and a clear desire for better working conditions. Time will tell how the labour market and its employers will react to these new demands.

As has often been the case in the EU’s history, this crisis gives us the opportunity to improve our society, to build back better and to build back fairer.

The pandemic has made crystal clear the importance of making the European Pillar of Social Rights a tangible reality for citizens.

The Pillar and its Action Plan, with its 3 headline targets on employment, skills and combating poverty and social exclusion, remains our underlying “social compass” as we progress on the path to recovery.

And we are determined to give the especially younger generation – the next generation – all the possible opportunities they need to thrive.

The EU has designated 2022 the European Year of Youth. We will co-create the year with young people and youth organisations, and in each event we will listen to what they have to say and reflect their ideas in our policy-making.

We know that young people have one thing in their minds: travelling. A Europe without borders. Getting opportunities wherever they can.

The ALMA programme will focus on young people who are often not reached, who find themselves marginalised from society. Like this, we will also build for those who are very often forgotten an inclusive and strong social Europe.

This crisis has shown our capacity to work together rapidly and in solidarity.

Europe acted fast during the pandemic to protect livelihoods and save jobs. With the SURE instrument, for example, we have supported national short-term work schemes thanks to the first ever EU social bonds. This coordinated project in solidarity has so far benefitted around 2.5 million companies and 31 million people.

In September 2021, eurozone unemployment stood at 7.4%, down from 8.6% one year earlier.

Today the European, economy is on the road to recovery, with GDP in 19 Member States expected to return to pre-crisis levels by the end of the year but there are still major risks, as recent spikes in infections show. We need broad and massive vaccination campaigns in all Member States and in our neighbourhood.

By creating the largest ever EU financial stimulus package, worth 1.8 trillion euros, the EU has ensured an inclusive recovery leaving no Member State behind.

NextGenerationEU, combined with funds such as the European Social Fund Plus, help to restore confidence. But above all it helps our Member States to modernise their economies, their societies their administrations, to face the major challenges – climate change and the technological revolution, represented by overall digitisation. These transitions have to be just.

And therefore it is encouraging to see that, according to our estimates, social spending accounts for around 30% of the Recovery and Resilience Plans received from Member States so far.

This recovery also has to be transformative. We have to change for the better. We have to engage in courageous reforms, and this is also what happens in this country (Slovakia).

Looking ahead, we need to continue to protect people in the new world of work and to provide them with stability and prospects. This means concretely: higher wages, higher health and safety standards, greater social protection as well as more training opportunities so that lifelong learning becomes the norm.

We must also strive to create a more sustainable and reliable world of work. People need to feel secure to organise their lives. This is particularly true for young people, who very often have to face precarious working conditions.

A strong innovative and more competitive economy creates quality. 

And this brings us back to the importance of social rights and knowing your rights.

One of the European Labour Authority’s main tasks is to improve access to information for mobile workers and their employers.

It is not enough to have rules and regulations for social protection and labour rights – workers need to understand them and employers need to assume responsibility for them!

Europe should be the beacon, the gold standard, when it comes to labour market conditions, regardless of where the worker comes from. it is about ensuring fairness at all levels.

We are a Europe that protects and more than ever we have to build an economy that works for people. Europe’s strengths lie in its unique model of a social market economy. And ELA is an important actor and promoter to uphold this model and strengthen it.

The free movement of workers is a cornerstone of the EU’s single market and a fundamental pillar in European integration.

One of the lessons we have learnt from the pandemic is that labour mobility is very fragile and that we have to protect and strengthen it.

Too often free movement of workers is used by those who combat the idea of a Union without internal borders and bring mistrust and division among European citizens.

Currently, there are 13.5 million EU citizens living in another Member State, including almost 10 million of working age.

By living and working in another country, mobile citizens can enrich their professional and personal lives, fill skill gaps at all levels, support entrepreneurship, spread new ideas and knowledge, and encourage innovation.

I would like to say a word now about the working conditions of the hundreds of thousands seasonal workers in the EU.

The pandemic shone a light on sub-standard conditions faced by some workers, in particular in some sectors like slaughterhouses – all the more worrying when health and safety was our top priority to contain the spread of the virus.

The poor working conditions, inhumane treatment of workers and lack of transparency are completely unacceptable and in contradiction of our principles and values.

The free movement of people will be even more beneficial if it goes hand in hand with upward social convergence. This is the driving force of the European project. So all workers have to be treated equally, including through their rights.

The rights of workers, including seasonal or mobile workers, have to be fully observed, regardless of what type of contract they have. Some countries have already taken action and clamped down on poor working conditions, but more progress is still needed.

I urge all Member States to redouble their efforts to ensure that EU labour laws are properly enforced by all companies and in all sectors, as well as to follow up with inspections where needed.

I very much welcome ELA’s 2021 Action Plan on seasonal workers in this context.

The Action Plan provides a comprehensive approach to seasonal work, with an emphasis on the Authority’s two core responsibilities: information and enforcement.

This included an information campaign, culminating in the EU Week of Action for Seasonal Workers that took place in September, by which time ELA supported and coordinated 5 joint and concerted inspections on seasonal work in 9 Member States.

Several other inspections in seasonal work, construction, and road transport are to take place later in the year, so we see ELA works even before it was officially inaugurated.

The added value of these joint inspections is already very tangible. They build trust between national authorities, resulting in the mutual understanding of national laws and inspection practices, to the ultimate benefit of workers.

They will become a focus for ELA’s future development as they are an indispensable tool for ensuring that the rules are properly enforced on the ground whether it concerns pay, access to social security or any other topic related to fair living and working conditions.

The EU already has a comprehensive set of acquis in the field of labour mobility, covering for example rules on the posting of workers, safer working environments, transparent and predictable working conditions, equal opportunities and access to labour markets.

EU legislation is constantly adapting to the new realities to ensure that workers fully benefit from their rights and businesses can thrive on a level playing field, without fear of social dumping or unfair competition.

I am thinking of the amended directive for posted workers, where workers are entitled to the same pay for the same work in the same place, and the revision of rules on social security coordination.

Major new initiatives include for example the proposed directive on adequate minimum wages and the upcoming directive to improve the working conditions of platform workers.

Ensuring the application of our fair labour mobility principles is first and foremost about enforcing the existing rules.

ELA is here to support directly and indirectly the millions of Europeans who live or work in another Member State, as well as businesses operating across EU borders.

It offers practical support in cross-border employment via its EURES network, helping job-seekers and employers find each other.

It analyses labour mobility, providing us with intelligence so we understand the latest trends and get the data we need, and I appreciate the work you have done on telework.

It tackles undeclared work which deprives workers of social protection, distorts competition between businesses, and leads to huge gaps in public finances.

And as we have already discussed, it ensures that information reaches the right people, and that EU rules are properly enforced.

We all have great expectations for ELA and we see more and more Member States expressing interest in its support.

The Authority will of course need to continue to scale up its operations, build capacity including in its mediation function and make its presence felt in the institutional landscape.

It will do this by ensuring that the right information gets to the right beneficiaries, by providing training for national staff in cross-border issues and by instilling a sense of joint ownership and responsibility between Member States and national authorities.

ELA promotes trust. ELA promotes confidence between Member States but also between Social Partners – between workers and employers. And this is one of Europe’s major strengths. Europe is built on rules on the one hand, and on trust and conference on the hand.

So I thank the Executive Director and all ELA staff for their hard work so far and wish you every success in the years to come in ensuring fairness in the European labour market.

Thank you for your attention.

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