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Over the past few years, issues surrounding working conditions and occupational health and safety (OHS) have become one of the main priorities of trade union action. The Commission had multiplied the number of directives and incentives on this subject, such as the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. This directive specifies in particular that employers are obliged to assess occupational risks and consult workers on all issues related to their health and safety at work.

In most Member States, employers are now required to provide their workers with a healthy and safe environment and working conditions. A recent study conducted by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA)illustrated that the legal obligation introduced by the Framework Directive is still one of the main driving forces behind getting company managers involved in the health, safety and working conditions of their workers. The role of trade unions, and worker representation bodies in particular, in working conditions and occupational health and safety is recognised as another major impetus for preventing this sort of risk.

Nowadays, worker representatives are increasingly called upon to have their transnational activities address work-related issues. European Works Councils (EWCs) are now the strategic crossroads of social dialogue in international companies. European trade union bodies strongly recommend incorporating work-related issues into the activities of EWCs and European sectoral social dialogue bodies. As such, the ability to connect occupational health issues to other thorny issues facing companies is essential. The maturity of EWCs tends to spur on the development of good practices on this subject. As such, we can report three findings that spark social partner interest in an approach to health, safety and working conditions within EWCs.

Growing demand for EWCS to address OSH issues

Over the past few decades, a large number of legislation, preventive actions, new technologies and innovation in work organisation have noticeably improved worker health, safety and working conditions. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of both psychosocial and mental professional risks in today’s world of work, given the risks of the intensification of work, the negative effects of new technologies, the ageing of the working population and longer working lives. Furthermore, the social partners find themselves playing a greater role, as the European Commission is currently dismantling European policies on occupational health. Every year, over 4,000 workers have an accident at work and over three million are involved in a serious accident resulting in more than three days off work. In total, 24.2% of workers believe that their work jeopardises their health and safety and 25% think that it has had primarily negative effects on their health.

As such, working conditions’ impact on health is increasingly at the centre of discussions within EWCs. By way of illustration, several EWC agreements have now established working groups to tackle specific issues associated with occupational health and safety and working conditions.

Benefit of transnational exchange on work

Within EWCs, exchange on work-related topics that apply to all participants greatly boosts the quality of dialogue. In fact, exchanges on work activities and conditions have been proven to reach a greater consensus than issues surrounding pay and employment. Furthermore, discussing working conditions and health risks (e.g. noise, relations, working tools) unites EWC members. Addressing such issues transcends differences (e.g. site size, economic situation, local and national specificities, social dialogue culture) and identifies common situations. As a result, issues surrounding working conditions, health and safety are frequently incorporated as a subject for dialogue in establishment agreements.

The ability to produce tangible, joint results that are useful for activities

Improved working conditions appear to be a priority in surveys asking workers about their expectations of trade unions. This is a clear mandate: how can we talk about defending workers’ rights if we do not tackle the basic need to keep them alive and protect their health? Moreover, this applies to all workers, whether employees or executives. As such, management may submit an assessment of the situation regarding working conditions and health and safety within various European subsidiaries to an EWC for review. However, the report’s findings may not reflect the realities encountered by worker representatives within EWCs. As a result, it is possible to perform a specific collective analysis and draft an action strategy. Identifying and acknowledging the realities faced by workers can thus facilitate the launch of very operational actions resulting from comparisons and exchange within EWCs.

In conclusion

EWCs have now achieved a certain level of maturity as representation bodies, which allows them to go further than simply applying directives. The existence of active EWCs with representatives working on health and safety can make the difference between a company officially and routinely applying rules, and genuine protection. As such, European Works Councils are a good way to address issues surrounding working conditions and health and safety:

  • Transnational exchange between social partners on work-related issues is easier, as the issues addressed frequently result in a consensus.
  • EWC action on these issues makes it easier for workers to understand these activities specifically, as their actions are based on tangible professional practices.
  • Exchanging good practices improves the support EWCs provide as a whole • Comparing better situations in other establishments may push employers to take action.

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Liesbeth Van Criekingen