Brussels' assault on unfair dismissal laws

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December 12, 2007 15:19 | by Kartika Liotard

Only last month the Dutch parliament refused to endorse the liberalisation of labour laws protecting the rights of workers in the face of unfair dismissal. Labour MPs voted with those of my own party to ditch the proposal, and the result is that it has for the time being been removed from the government's agenda. This same Labour Party, known in Dutch as the PvdA, is the slightly junior partner in governing coalition, sharing power with the centre-right Christian Democrats and a much smaller centrist Christian party, the Christian Union. This was a victory for more progressive members of the PvdA, the first of its kind since the new government was formed earlier this year. It was also a victory for my own Socialist Party. Since the general election late in 2006, when we tripled our parliamentary representation to 25, only a few seats behind Labour, winning votes largely at Labour's expense, they have, as we say in Dutch, felt the heat of our breath on their necks. This is pleasing, but if we are to consolidate our victory and protect workers from arbitrary dismissal, this is also no time to lower our guard. The problem is that the real threat to these rights comes primarily, in fact, not from The Hague, but from Brussels. It may be likely that what we won in the Dutch parliament was a stay of execution, rather than a reprieve. Brussels, however, has no interest in either, nor is it probable that it will pay much attention to the opinions of voters who have no influence whatsoever on the political colour of twenty-six out of twenty-seven members of the Council of Employment Ministers, whose word on the matter will be decisive.

Flexicurity

'Flexicurity' has for years dominated the European debate on employment, and the enactment of actual, concrete European Union directives is coming ever closer. Flexicurity is the magic formula needed to bring about the drastic liberalisation of the European jobs market. It is assumed by many, including Dutch Employment Minister Piet Hein Donner and the vast majority of his colleagues in the EU's Council of Ministers - as well as most of my own fellow MEPs - that employers will be willing to employ more people more rapidly if they can be sure that they will also be able to get rid of them in a straightforward and inexpensive manner. In exchange for this flexibility, workers will gain the security which comes from the availability of more jobs. The security of a steady job will be no more, but it will be replaced by the security of knowing that work will always be readily to be found.

Evidence that making it easier to sack people leads to reduced unemployment is scanty, whereas evidence that it leads to unfair and arbitrary dismissal, increasing workers' vulnerability to intimidation, sexual harassment, contract-breaching demands and other abuses and indignities is legion. These are the arguments that my country's democratically-elected parliament accepted when it voted against the measure. Our government might yet decide to defy parliament, but even if it should not do so, if it should decide to follow the clearly expressed will of the Dutch people and refrain from putting a torch to laws on unfair dismissal, this could yet turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. The fact is that before the end of the government's term of office, the EU's member states might still be confronted with obligations created by rules issued by Brussels. In such circumstances, even a PvdA threat to bring about a crisis within the cabinet would be of no help.

Donner can happily put his plans into deep freeze in the contented knowledge that his prayers will yet be answered via the European Union, something which I cannot quite believe is not already at the back of the mind not only of the Christian Democrat Employment Minister, but of Labour's Deputy Prime minister Wouter Bos as well.

Broad resistance to the weakening of the law on unfair dismissal should represent the overture to a more active participation on the part of Dutch trade unions and progressive political parties in the European debate. This must, of course, be emulated throughout the EU if we are to defeat this assault on workers' rights. Decisions are being taken at European level which in the near future will affect the Netherlands and every other member state, and people must be made to understand that 'Europe' is not some remote phenomenon of interest only to specialists. The Labour and social democratic parties organised in the European Parliament's so-called 'Socialist' group, currently feel themselves to be ever more at liberty to go along with the whole flexicurity process, much more so than their colleagues in our national parliament would dare. The twenty percent of Dutch Labour Party members who have said that they would leave the party should Wouter Bos give way on this issue would do well to keep a close eye on the way in which their representatives in Brussels vote in the coming weeks and months, as would other centre-left voters elsewhere in the European Union.

It augurs far from well that the Chair of this so-called Socialist group in the European Parliament, Ole Christensen completely rejected my report on the consequences of this flexicurity for women in the labour market. We have shown before, for example in defeating the liberalisation of port services and restricting other liberalisation proposals that centre-left parliamentarians can be pushed into returning to their progressive roots, especially if they are begin to fear for their prospects of reelection. We must keep up the pressure.

Kartika Liotard is a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, Dutch affiliate of the United European Left. She was recently parliamentary rapporteur on 'flexicurity' and gender equality.