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The European Union

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 5 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Workers' Rights European Community

When the European Economic Community began in 1957, the aim was to create a single market and guarantee four freedoms: the free movement of capital, goods, services and people between the member states. After five decades the original six member states now number 27 in the re-named European Union and since the customs posts were dismantled between seven of the core nations in 1995, those freedoms have begun to change the rights of workers in noticeable ways.

Four Freedoms

The freedom of movement for goods and workers has had a profound effect, with the numbers of foreign-registered lorries on Britain's roads rocketing and the numbers of workers coming to the United Kingdom going up, particularly since the entry to the EC of the former Communist Bloc countries in Eastern Europe.

Regardless of whether these changes are considered good or bad for the UK, there is no doubt that if European countries are to compete on the world stage in a capitalist free market economy, then it is imperative that they join together. Without this, they will not be able to achieve the economies of scale and subsequent growth necessary to compete with the massive single markets of the USA, China and India, as well as other geographical trade associations that are in development, such as those in Southern Africa, Western Africa, the Middle-Eastern Gulf states and the South-East Asian states.

One of the three pillars of Europe introduced in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 was to create common Justice and Home Affairs policies and this meant harmonising, where possible, and obviously very slowly, laws and regulations across the member countries. This has had the effect of introducing to the UK (and all other member states) laws that are the same in all the member states so as to create a level playing field for competition.

Practical Changes Effecting Workers

When the Labour government came to power in the UK in 1997 they signed up to the European Social Charter, which guaranteed the UK's adoption of EU regulations protecting workers' rights. In practical terms, that has meant shorter maximum working hours and minimum rest periods and holiday periods for workers, and has significantly enhanced the rights of part-time, temporary and agency workers, to match those of full-time employees.

The most recent major change that was visited on the UK at the behest of the EU was the Working Time Directive, laws that set maximum working hours and statutory breaks after certain lengths of time at work. The UK allows an opt-out, meaning that employees can request to be exempt from the directive, and this has been used in many industries, particularly construction and hospitality. Our article on Working Hours and Holidays gives more details on the implications of this legislation.

Next Steps?

The European Union is currently pushing hard to modernise labour laws across Europe, striving to make them meet the need for 'adaptability' of workers and enterprises. The EU cited the confrontational nature of many European labour laws that, because of the historical situations that lead to the creation of those laws, are built from a basis of protecting workers from employers.

The EU believes that a new framework of collaborative laws will be needed for the 21st Century, but already the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has led the voices of cynicism, reasoning that this is likely to be an attack on workers' rights for employers' gain. Time will tell as the new century unfolds.

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