The economic and financial crisis of recent years has adversely affected labour markets and working conditions in Europe. Not only has unemployment been unacceptably high, but the quality of employment has also suffered.
Work in the 21st century should be synonymous with creativity, participation, safety and respect for workers. Instead, for many today, and including those who manage to return to the labour market in this period, work means insecurity, a downward pressure on wages and a race to the bottom.
Now that a recovery has begun and unemployment has started to fall in Europe, we have to pay more attention to working conditions and to how to improve them. Growth will only be more robust and sustainable if we manage to boost investment not only in physical infrastructure and skills, but also in working conditions.
While distress and discontent have grown in Europe's labour markets and workplaces, it should also be clear that EU Member States also provide some of the best models in the world in terms of strong social partnerships, corporate social responsibility and reconciling work and private life.
The EU's most productive and competitive economies are those that successfully combine high levels of social investment and employment protection with flexibility, productivity and dynamic social dialogue. Their examples show that investing in school-to work transitions, and occupational health and safety, pay off in terms of higher levels of employment, more active ageing, and more sustainable social security systems.
Some still underestimate the importance of EU labour legislation in this area, or question its relevance for the future. However, the EU has a key role to play in protecting fair working conditions, for both economic and social reasons.
It is EU law which guarantees workers' right to minimum paid holidays, weekly limits on working time and the right to be consulted and informed about employers' decisions that affect them. EU law also protects workers in case of insolvency of the employer, against abusive successions of fixed-term employment and against discrimination.
Several recent EU initiatives have focussed on improving working conditions through protecting more vulnerable workers. The youngest vulnerable workers are trainees, who have often been victims of unacceptable exploitation. To better protect them, the Commission proposed a new Quality Framework for Traineeships, adopted by the Member States in March, to ensure that these young workers are able to acquire a valuable work experience in safe conditions.
Workers are also more vulnerable when companies restructure. These situations can never be easy. However, current best practices in the EU show it is possible to anticipate change, to manage it by minimising its social and human cost, to prepare employees for technological innovations, and to help redundant workers to find new employment. The Commission has therefore proposed a Quality Framework to promote such good practices.
Undeclared work represents another challenge to fair working conditions, since it deprives workers of protection. To better combat this problem, and to replace undeclared work with legal and decent employment, the Commission has just proposed the creation of a new EU Platform that will help Member States' various enforcement bodies to work more effectively together.
The Commission is also preparing a new Strategic Framework on safety and health at work for 2014-2020. EU rules and European Strategies have already helped to prevent accidents and work-related diseases, leading to healthier, safer, more productive and more motivated workers and to less absenteeism.
Companies benefit from this not only through higher productivity but also from being able to compete on a level playing field throughout the EU's Single Market, without facing 28 different sets of rules or unfair competition from companies that expose their workers to unsafe working conditions.
The new strategy will seek to make easier for companies to implement existing rules and to face new challenges (like work related stress).
The European Commission also promotes labour rights and decent work outside the EU's borders, and encourages the ratification and effective implementation of International Labour Conventions (ILO) on core labour standards.
ILO standards inspire EU labour law, which is built upon a rich European heritage of labour legislation and the longstanding tradition of collective bargaining in many Member States. International Worker's Day is a reminder of this cherished legacy that we should pass to future generations.