For Thomas Händel it is clear, "Europe's employment and social balance is a disaster. Unemployment is at a record level and over one quarter of people in Europe live in poverty or are at risk of poverty."
"We, the European institutions, need to lay the foundations for new ecologically and socially sustainable work and combat poverty with an active employment policy going hand in hand with economic, financial and industrial policy. Employment and social policy must be considered more than just an appendix to other policies," he stresses.
The chair of parliament's employment and social affairs (EMPL) committee pointed to the deteriorating employment situation in Europe, telling the Parliament Magazine that "Fewer and fewer people in Europe have permanent jobs with wages above the poverty line." He underlined the importance of recognising the seriousness of this challenge and meeting it head on, stressing that currently, "Instability is eating its way through societies in the member states like a cancer. The objective of raising the level of employment to 75 per cent by 2020 is a world away from reality. The quality of existing employment relationships has declined massively, with anything not contributing to competitiveness cut and/or reduced. All of this is being done with no consideration for people's health and wellbeing. It is a major challenge, particularly for the EMPL committee."
"We, the European institutions, need to lay the foundations for new ecologically and socially sustainable work and combat poverty with an active employment policy going hand in hand with economic, financial and industrial policy"
For the GUE/NGL deputy, who has been with the parliament since 2009, "The most urgent task is combating unemployment, in particular youth unemployment. Youth guarantees alone are not enough." He was supportive of the commission's 18 pilot projects, calling them "a start". "However," he adds, "according to studies carried out by the international labour organisation (ILO), the programme is seriously under-funded. Even the current Italian presidency considers the programme to be merely a drop in the ocean. Without new work, the disaster is simply covered up." "After all," says Händel, "employment is the most important economic factor, with a share of up to 60 per cent of gross domestic product in the member states."
He was particularly critical of what of he calls the "circumvention of employment protection legislation". He says that "urgent steps" are needed in areas such as the "posting of workers, fictitious self-employment, unfair awarding of work contracts and new 'daily wages' regarding zero-hour contracts". "Of particular importance," stresses Händel, "would be a European minimum wage level which, at 60 per cent of national average wages, will not overstrain national economies, but can prevent poverty in work." He also suggests that "a new European working time directive needs to reinforce the positive effects of the current directive, reduce maximum work periods and ensure a better distribution of work." "Finally, working time policy historically always includes occupational safety and health protection. This seems a sensible starting point given the growing incidence of stress-related and psychosomatic disorders."
Händel is convinced that any steps to lift the EU out of its employment slump can only enjoy success by engaging fully with Europe's workforce. "From personal experience gathered over decades of trade union work and as a regional employment judge of my country," he says, "I believe that we can only control and enforce what needs to be done with strong elements of worker participation. This is something I will state repeatedly and clearly."
"The objective of raising the level of employment to 75 per cent by 2020 is a world away from reality"
On his expectations for working with the new commission, Händel says it "remains to be seen" whether president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker's structural reshuffle will "just be a new organisational chart with no practical impact". "The selection of portfolios and relevant commissioners has at least caused astonishment, including in employment and social affairs." Moving on to Marianne Thyssen, the incoming employment, social affairs, skills and labour mobility commissioner, Händel asks whether EMPL "can expect a progressive employment policy" due to the Belgian nominee's "employer's association background". "As a long-time trade unionist, I eagerly await a social dialogue – at the highest level, so to speak."
Händel, says he expects "intense discussions with the council and commission regarding how to face the consequences of the crisis", but warns that "Juncker's recent suggestions and orders to the commissioners do not make the necessary shift away from neoliberal dogma very likely". For him, however, "a social Europe – especially the project of a common European labour market – requires more common and strong employment rights".
"During the years of the last crisis, individual and collective employment and social rights have been severely damaged and undermined. This has also contributed significantly to a distrust of Europe and its institutions. The idea of Europe is not only inherent in the idea of peace but also the idea of social and societal progress. As a result, we would be best advised to finally take efficient measures against social regression and put the principle of equal pay and equal rights for equal work in the same workplace into practice," he concludes.
Thomas Händel is chair of parliament's employment and social affairs committee