Fair, equal and enforceable rules for employees, companies and countries. So that we are no longer played off against each other. That’s what we need. That is what Europe needs.
Belgium has been president of the European Union since January 1. For the next six months, our country will lead the Council of the EU with the ministers of the 27 EU member states. Belgium’s role? Getting Member States on the same page and finding a compromise around legislative proposals from the European Commission, and then negotiating an agreement with the European Parliament to arrive at new European regulations.
As chairman, Belgium must mainly mediate, but it can also do so own accents lay. So it is the moment for our Belgian politicians to show where they want to go with Europe. Moreover, there are also European elections in June. And so it is up to the unions to make it clear what can and should be improved.
On March 25, the ABVV union, together with the other Belgian unions, will enter into discussions with the current democratic Belgian MEPs and the (new) candidates in the European elections in June. To confront them with the European policy, but also to give trade union demands and look ahead. At the end of January, a first meeting took place between about 80 militants from various ABVV trade union federations and sectors, Ester Lynch, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation and Lucie Studničná, chairman of the workers’ group in the European Economic and Social Committee that provides advice to the other EU institutions.
“No employee, no sector or national union will stop the large multinationals from their hunger for profit, from not respecting employment conditions, from evading taxes, from playing employees against each other… We can only do this in a level that transcends national borders” says Ester Lynch.
Lucie Studničná adds: “In one branch, employees earn a third less than in another branch of the same company, 40 kilometers away. That is unjust and revengeful. Countries, regions and companies benefit from unfair competition, while workers suffer.”
That is precisely why, disappointed that the EU is not tackling such problems today or is tackling them too little, we should Don’t turn your back on Europe. Frank Moreels, chairman of BTB, the transport center of the ABVV: “Today’s Europe is not the kind of Europe we want. Europe did not respond correctly to the social, economic and political challenges and, on the contrary, focused on liberalization, privatization and deregularization. This has strengthened the distrust of working people towards that distant – and in their view bureaucratic – Europe. You can bet that populists will capitalize on that. It is up to us, trade unionists, to put a different Europe on the map. So that our members do not have to pay the bill at the end of the day.”
The rules of the game must therefore be fairer and clearer. But they must also be respected and enforced. We must not forget that Europe has not only created peace and freedom, but also… concrete minimum rules in many sectors regarding working hours, holidays and leaves, minimum wages, safety at work … to protect employees. “About 80% of all national laws are partly determined by European laws,” says Lucie. Unfortunately, enforcement is often lacking.
“Companies that break laws and violate workers’ rights… that’s criminal. Paying below the minimum wage is theft. This must be tackled and combated in the same way as other crime.”
“There is finally a European Labor Authority to fight against social fraud, against abuse and exploitation of those working in another country, but this is a paper tiger,” Ester posits. “Last year, this service carried out barely 100 inspections. In a whole year, in the 27 Member States of the Union. That’s ridiculously little. These checks are usually also announced. The chance of being caught really needs to increase. We’re still talking about this crime? Companies that break laws and violate employee rights… that’s criminal. Paying below the minimum wage is theft. This must be tackled and combated in the same way as other crime.”
Frank also mentions that fraud occurs without scruples. “Barely one commissioner of the Belgian federal police, that of Liège, has carried out checks over the past year on violations of driving and rest times and the EU return rules for foreign drivers. While not respecting those rules is pure exploitation and creates dangerous situations on our highways. During the checks, more than 85% of Eastern European drivers were fined.”
Not above our heads
So we need a social and strong Europe. Where it is good to work and live, with strong social protection and social rights that are respected, shared and observed.
Miranda Ulens, general secretary ABVV: “There is indeed room for change, for a Europe that is closer to the people. A social Europe that not only listens, but also responds to the needs of its citizens. A Europe that values not only the economic, but also the social. A Europe where we feel safe and understood, regardless of our background. It is time to work together to create a Europe we can be proud of. We have the power to put a different Europe on the map, a Europe that truly works for everyone.”
Each of us can put Europe in the right direction at the European Parliament elections in June. We need to send strong and social politicians there who really embrace basic ideas of the Union such as cooperation, equality and unity, instead of ‘second chance politicians’, politicians who sow division or who drive for big companies.