5 times European workers' rights won in 2019

Jan 13, 2020

5 mins

5 times European workers' rights won in 2019

On average, you are likely to spend 90,000 hours of your life working. This colossal amount of time needs to be governed by rules and regulations, in order to protect your rights and freedoms as a worker.

Is your company paying you less than your male colleague for the same job? Are you unable to be present for your newborn due to short paternity leave? How can your professional life be more stable as a gig worker? These are just some of the issues that European countries tackled in 2019, to bolster workers’ rights. While there is no pan-European social security scheme for workers in the EU, each member state has its own set of laws which cater to improving working conditions.

Here are five laws that were adopted in European countries in 2019 to strengthen workers’ rights:

1. Pay gap between CEOs and employees in the UK

Income inequalities between CEOs and their workforce are eye-watering in the UK. In 2017, an FTSE 100 CEO was paid 145 times more than an average employee. “It would take most workers two lifetimes to earn what top execs get in a single year. That’s not right,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress to the BBC.

These inequalities led to a string of revolts from investors and stakeholders in 2018 in companies including Royal Mail and Unilever. In response, the British Government decided to improve transparency by passing a law in January 2019 that requires companies to disclose the ratio of the remuneration of CEOs to the average pay of employees every year.

This law mainly applies to companies with more than 250 employees that are listed on the London stock exchange. The first executive-worker pay ratio will be published in 2020 and companies are expected to justify the pay gap.

2. Tackling gender pay gaps in France

Sixty years ago, the equal pay principle was written into European treaties, yet on average women still earn 16% less than men within the EU. Based on this figure, in 2019 women worked for free starting November 4 to the end of the year compared to their male colleagues in the same jobs. In fact, this date is symbolically marked as equal pay day in a bid to raise awareness on the pay gap. There are several reasons for this. While women are more likely to work part-time and be primary care-givers, they also bear the brunt of the glass ceiling.

In France, the average gender pay gap is 15.4% despite equal pay laws being present since 1972. To tackle this issue, the country passed a decree for equal pay between men and women (l’index de l’égalité salariale femmes-hommes) in January 2019. The legislation requires companies with more than 50 employees to publish the pay gap between their male and female employees, on their websites, based on a set of legal criteria.

Under this new legislation, employers are also obliged to explain how they are addressing any pay gaps. If they fail to do so, they are subject to a fine. On March 1, 2019, French corporations released their gender pay gap results, but more than 100 companies failed to meet official equality targets. Though critics have pointed out that this strategy could put companies off from hiring more women, this law is commendable in its efforts to reinforce gender equality through transparency.

3. Paternity leave in Spain

According to a 2018 OECD report, the average length of paid maternity leave in the EU is 22.1 weeks, while on average fathers are offered just 1.7 weeks of paid paternity leave. But many governments are realising that this doesn’t reflect the idea of a modern family. Having short paid paternity leave puts the burden of parenting on women, rather than creating a space where fathers equally participate in child-raising.

In 2018, the proposed EU minimum of two weeks’ paid paternity leave was met by 17 out of 28 member states but it was considered well paid (at least 66% of salary) in only 13 countries. A year later in February 2019, Spain decided to take a stronger stand and passed a law that allows men to take eight weeks of paid paternity leave. This law was adopted in response to a demand to improve work-life balance from a gender equality perspective in the country.

The Spanish government plans to increase paternity leave to 12 weeks in 2020 and in 2021 it aims to develop a system where both men and women will get 16 weeks of leave—roughly an equal amount of time off to invest in parenthood.

4. Finland’s Working Hours Act

As the startup boom gathers momentum, governments in European countries are beginning to offer flexible policies to digital nomads so they can continue working remotely and contribute to the startup ecosystem flourishing across the continent. According to Eurostat, 5% of employed persons in the EU work remotely, which equates to around 25 million people across the EU.

One country that is championing the concept of remote working is Finland. Since 2011, the country has offered an agile work culture that includes extremely flexible work schedules. In fact, 92% of Finnish companies offer workers the chance to work flexibly.

In March 2019, the Finnish government passed a new Working Hours Act that will allow workers to decide when and where they want to work for at least half of their hours from January 2020. Workers still have to clock an average of 40 hours of work per week, but they can choose to rearrange their hours around their lifestyle. For example, they could work longer days to bank up hours, start and finish earlier to suit childcare arrangements or take a longer lunch break to fit in exercise. And there’s the choice of where to work, too. Finnish workers can take their work wherever they choose, from the office to home, a cafe or even arrange to work from abroad.

5. Minimum rights for gig economy workers in Europe

You’ve probably heard the phrase “gig economy” that has not only become a part of start-up lingo but has also changed the way we work. This model that offers jobs on a short-term or pay-by-task basis, has risen exponentially and shows no signs of slowing down. Services that have become household names in big cities, such as Uber and Deliveroo, are known for employing people on a “gig” basis.

One study found that this type of work is most common in the IT sector where 9% of workers earn their basic income through short-term gigs, while 24% see it as an additional source of income. But the rise of the gig economy has led to a new independent work tribe whose rights fall into a grey zone, including questions on regulated work hours and reporting abusive practices.

To overcome this, the European Parliament passed a law in April 2019 that guarantees minimum rights for gig economy workers. The new directive ensures that these workers will not be exploited and will receive compensation even if their contracts are cancelled at the last minute. Gig economy workers will also be free to work in multiple jobs and will be granted a probationary period lasting six months.

The law applies to those in casual and short-term employment, on-demand workers, platform workers, paid apprentices and trainees, but not those who are genuinely self-employed. Member states have up to three years to enforce the new legislation in their own domestic laws.

These major steps in 2019 will help workers leap into the new decade with more security and stability. From fighting gender inequality in the workplace to reducing precarity for gig workers, European workers are demanding a better professional future, and their governments aim to deliver.

Illustration by Antonio Uve, colagene.com

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