One of the unwitting effects of the pandemic crisis has been to remake the case for dialogue between social partners to solve major problems.

By Christophe Degryse

Hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers crossing Europe to help with the harvest but facing a patchwork of inconsistent national border rules. European fishermen stranded in the Atlantic with landing ports closed in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. Commercial workers in big cities attacked because of shortages of certain goods and compulsory social-distancing measures. Printers facing solvent shortages due to an explosion in demand for hydro-alcohol gel. Telecommunications technicians harassed because 5G is rumoured to spread the virus.

These are some of many examples of work situations which were suddenly disrupted and disorganised by the pandemic when it exploded in Europe in March 2020. They include, of course—in sectors as diverse as catering, tourism, professional football, industrial cleaning and civil aviation—temporary cessation of economic activity.

Even permanent job losses are feared in some cases. For example, the cash-in-transit industry has had to deal with consumers suddenly fearful of using cash to pay for purchases in shops. Does cash transmit the virus? According to the European Central Bank, the risk is very low but, with the sudden increase in contactless payments, cash handlers are now worried about their future …

How have employers and workers managed these sectoral situations, some totally unexpected? Has social dialogue at European level been of any use in trying to resolve some of these problems?

Particularly useful

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (article 152) mandates the promotion of dialogue and consultation between employers’ and workers’ representatives. Numerous studies have examined the rationale and outcome—often mixed—of this ‘social dialogue’, particularly at sectoral level. According to a recent report by the European Trade Union Institute (in French but soon available in English), it appears however that this dialogue proved particularly useful in 2020, in dealing with concrete consequences of the pandemic.

Management of the crisis by public authorities has been mainly sectoral. Most of the measures taken, for more than a year now, have concerned the closure and reopening of schools, non-essential shops, hotels and restaurants, offices of public administration, cultural institutions, tourism facilities and so on.

Beyond these sectors, interdependencies have created domino effects. For example, employers and workers in the maritime fishing industry provide nearly 50 billion meals a year to Europeans. At the beginning of the pandemic, as restaurants closed, they warned the European Commission that fishing vessels might have to stop their operations. The priority was then to determine the conditions for maintaining economic activity at all costs. How could supply chains, transport services, logistics and port activity—without which 75 per cent of goods would simply have been blocked across Europe in the spring of 2020—be adapted in a few days?

Improved resilience

Analysis of European sectoral social dialogue amid the pandemic reveals a number of things. First, this consultation between employers and workers has made it possible to improve the resilience of the European economy in the face of brutal shocks.

Solutions has to be found through consultation, to protect the health of workers, suppliers and customers, to ensure continuity of activities under sometimes extremely difficult conditions. Through consultation, jobs were protected as much as possible, to enable a relaunch of activity when the time came. And through ‘joint lobbying’ social partners asked the EU and member states to harmonise health protocols in the workplace, derogations from confinement measures for essential workers and support for training and adaptation to new forms of work (such as training in e-commerce for non-essential shops).

Secondly, this analysis shows in concrete terms how millions of workers with little social recognition are essential to the economy—in care services, of course, but also in shops, transport, public services generally, ports, cleaning and security agencies, home-help services and so on. Covid-19 reminded us that companies have a vital need for healthy, motivated, protected workers, who are involved in the measures applying to them and are stakeholders in those decisions.

Moreover, viruses do not care about the status of workers. To ensure continuity of activities, it is therefore necessary to take into account not only employees but also self-employed workers, subcontractors, posted workers and seasonal workers —including migrants who are sometimes undocumented. Without these essential workers often in the shadows, the European economy would simply not have survived.

Bigger boost

European social dialogue, whose usefulness has often been questioned in recent years—including by this writer—seems to have proved its value amid these crisis times. The pandemic, remarkably, has undoubtedly given a bigger boost to sectoral social dialogue than any conference could have done.

But now it will be put to the test. Will the results of this social dialogue at European level be translated into increased social recognition and tangible improvement in the working conditions of these essential workers? The ball is in the court of the national actors, because they are the ones who can pull the policy levers—and on that they have some way to go.