Concerted attack on rights of dismissed workers must be defeated


October 17, 2007 14:16 | by René Roovers

In national capitals and in Brussels, workers' rights are under sustained assault. René Roovers calls for resistance.

'Flexicurity' and the 'modernisation' of labour law, in particular protection against unfair dismissal, constitute the final step in the process of liberalisation of labour relations sought by both the Dutch government and the European Commission. In November the European Parliament will adopt its position, while in the Dutch national parliament the struggle over Social Affairs Minister Piet Hein Donner's plans has flared into life. No doubt similar battles are taking place in other European capitals, for the so-called modernisation of the member states' labour laws forms the missing link by means of which the adaptability and employability of workers under the new relations of competition prevailing in a globalised world must, we are told, be reconfigured, and this must be achieved without employers having to worry too much about unions breathing down their necks.

This kind of thinking is perfectly suited to the European Union's new Lisbon Programme for Growth and Employment. Earlier steps in this direction included the adoption of the Bolkestein Directive aimed at liberalising the internal market for services, the selling off of public services and the removal of barriers to the free movement of workers between member states.

As is so often the case when it comes to the neoliberal direction taken by the European Union, the Netherlands is once again out in front. While the European Commission and Parliament continue to wrestle with the question of the direction they wish to go in relation to Europe's social model, the debate in the Netherlands has already intensified now that the government of Jan Peter Balkenende has placed the most important aspect of this agenda - the rights of dismissed workers, and of those threatened with dismissal - squarely at the centre of the political agenda. This means that the outcome of this battle over these rights in the Netherlands is also of no little importance, as, together with Denmark, the Netherlands is seen as being at the cutting edge in relation to the introduction of 'flexicurity', a concept defined by the European Commission, in Guideline No.21 of the Integrated Guidelines for Growth and Employment for the period 2005-2008, as "flexibility combined with employment security and reduce(d) labour market segmentation".

The coming months will see the European Parliament take its decision on the Commission's recommendations. What is at issue is whether we will go in the direction of Americanisation or if, instead, sustainable productivity, quality of work, innovation and the maintenance of the right to a secure job will be given a chance. A great deal will depend during this period on the attitude taken by the trade unions at European level and the outcome of the confrontation over dismissal rights in the Netherlands.

It is slowly becoming clear, with its Green Paper on 'Modernising Labour Law' and its Communication on Flexicurity in the Labour Market, which of these directions is favoured by the European Commission. The soothing if soporific words of European Commissioner Vladimir Spidla, even attempting to give him the benefit of the doubt, come down to the following: workers are responsible as individuals for finding employment. Protection against dismissal must be drastically reduced and in its place workers will gain the right to lifelong learning, by means of which their capacity to find work on a rapidly-changing labour market will be maintained. This is known as 'from job security to employment security', but what it means in a nutshell is that employers have no responsibility for maintaining their workers' jobs. Instead of pressuring them to improve the distribution of employment by, for example, shortening hours of work, reorganising the division of tasks or improving internal training, the emphasis will be laid on external measures aimed at enabling workers to exercise their 'right' to a new job should they lose their old one. Employment contracts will become individual arrangements, and trade unions will not be encouraged to play a significant role in their negotiation. Unions were, in fact, scarcely consulted when it came to drawing up new proposals concerning employment rights, a matter about which they are understandably and justifiably angry.

Commissioner Spidla's involvement in this is truly touching. For him, he has explained, it concerns the interests of the large number of unemployed people in Europe, the so-called 'outsiders'. In the Netherlands these people are primarily members of ethnic minorities, women and older workers. Spidla, in common with the Dutch government, does not favour improving protection and security for all workers, although there is every reason to do so in this time of uncertainty, of globalisation and growing competition. No: Spidla and Donner prefer to launch an attack on the right to be protected against unfair dismissal and thereby undermine the security of workers who currently enjoy both a job and protection against unfair dismissal. Everyone must adjust to a lower level of social protection, with the corollary being the promise that the government will invest more in preparing people for the labour market and in so-called life-long learning. Instead of job protection, we will have employment protection, a very different concept in the hands of the European Commission, at least.

Commissioner Spidla enjoys the unequivocal support of the two biggest political groups in the European Parliament, the centre-right Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats. They are backing Spidla with the aim of increasing economic growth and thereby creating more employment through the modernisation of labour relations, financial incentives for the unemployed and cuts in public spending. This must deliver jobs. Only by opening the back door - the placing of people whose position on the labour market is difficult - can the front door be opened, Donner told the Dutch Parliament recently. The gnomic nature of this utterance should not disguise the fact that this is a far-reaching ideological position, one which puts the cart before the horse. Even the OECD has been forced in recent times to admit that the flexibilisation of the right to protection from unfair dismissal does not generate employment. Instead, it has a negative impact on productivity. It turns out that economic growth is highest in countries with systems based on good education, including education for children, young people and also adults - education both extensive and expensive - sound labour market policies and effective social provisions which offer workers a measure of security, even at times when they look like falling out of the labour market altogether. What's imperative is, therefore, investment. Attacking employment protection rights has a contrary effect to that ostensibly intended.

On a number of points the major Dutch trade union federation the FNV is spot on in its objections to the current rules regarding unfair dismissal. If we truly want to tackle the problems of the labour market and of unemployment amongst groups of people who drop out of the search for work, it must be made completely clear that it cannot be the intention to undermine the right to employment protection of those who already have a job. The permanent employment contract is the standard and must become available to all instead of to fewer people. The FNV demonstrates in a pamphlet entitled "9 myths" that there is already more than enough labour market flexibility for employers. More flexibility leads to insecurity, deteriorating labour relations and declining morale amongst workers. It should also be recognised that economic growth is achieved primarily by increasing productivity and that well-trained workers play a major role in this. This means investing in workers' training, in life-long learning, in good education, and sound provisions designed to enable the reconciliation of work, family and private life. A strengthening of the position of trade unions instead of the individualisation of labour relations is also clearly important, offering more security to workers.

Things will be close and tense over the next few months both in the Netherlands and in Brussels. We are faced with a fundamental choice. Will workers in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe still be able to count on a steady job? Are we moving into a future where we will enjoy a strong social base with a foundation of healthy labour relations? Or will we instead go further down the road of thoroughgoing liberalisation on the basis of 'flexibility' and repression, the lowering of social standards and the raising of economic growth rates through deteriorating working conditions and conditions of service? If this policy of demolition and confrontation, orchestrated in The Hague and other member state capitals as much as in Brussels, is continued it could lead to what we call in Dutch a 'hot autumn', in other words to mass resistance from workers and their organisations in defence of conditions fought for and won over a century of industrial and social struggle. Trade unions have for years been forced on to the back foot, and in many countries have been driven almost to extinction. We can do better in the Netherlands and we can do better in Europe, and this improvement should begin with a decisive rejection of the Donner plan to weaken rights on dismissal and the 'flexicurity' agenda of Commissioner Spidla and the development of alternatives in their stead, a process in which the broad labour movement must be fully involved.

René Roovers is adviser om labour relations to the United European Left/Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament and a member of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands.