[email protected]: Social protection for all as a key deliverable of the European Pillar of Social Rights

On March 7, CESI and the Representation of the State of Baden-Württemberg to the EU held the 18th edition of CESI’s lunchtime debate series ‘[email protected]’, this time on ‘Digitalisation & future of work: Social protection for all?’

Against the backdrop of an expected proposal by the European Commission for a Council Recommendation on ‘Access to social protection for workers and the self-employed’, CESI together with stakeholders and representatives from EU institutions debated on how the EU could help ensure that all workers in de facto dependent work relationships are covered by adequate and affordable social protection, including those in bogus self-employment and so far largely unregulated new forms of employment in the digital economy.

A high level expert panel

The event featured Maximilian Strotmann from the cabinet of Andrus Ansip, European Commissioner for the Digital Single Market, Ragnar Horn from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, Petru Sorin Dandea, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and rapporteur of its recent opinion on ‘Sustainable social security and social protection systems in the digital era’ as well as Claire Dhéret, Senior Policy Analyst for Social Affairs at the Brussels think tank European Policy Centre (EPC).

CESI was represented by Secretary General Klaus Heeger and Siglinde Hasse, Federal Chair of the Trade Union of the German Social Security Institutions (GdS), an affiliate of CESI’s member organisation dbb (German Civil Service Federation).

Welcome words were given by the Deputy Director of the Representation of the State of Baden-Württemberg to the EU Eyke Peveling; the event was moderated by Pierre Baussand, Head of the Brussels Liaison Office of Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

Fundamental questions about access to social protection for all – and the role of the EU in it

Fundamental questions about  access to social protection for all, and the role of the EU therein, were addressed: Which are the main groups of people that lack access to any kind of social protection, and which factors have caused them to be outside the system? What are the implications for the concerned workers and for the financing and sustainability of national social protection systems at large? Should the EU provide a framework for social protection in the Member States, and do the Treaties even provide for a competence to become involved? Are there tools for a more encompassing social protection beyond measures by governments and legislators?

During the debate, clear answers were found at least to some of these questions:

  • Gaps in access to social protection exist in all Member States, however their nature and scope vary greatly. Problems in access to social protection may be related to a variety of issue-specific waiting times, minimum and transition periods and thresholds or transferability and portability requirements which make a generic answer by the EU to national-level challenges in social protection difficult. Especially in the case of mobile workers in the EU, non-pickup of social protection is often because of lacking information among workers about eligibilities and entitlements, which requires better awareness-raising. For digital platform workers, those in bogus-self employment and others in de facto dependent work relationships but without proper contracts, gaps in social protection often exist because access to social security systems is often traditionally labour contract-based: No recognition as a dependent worker = no standard employment contract = no access to social protection. In this regards Klaus Heeger stressed the importance of an encompassing definition of the term ‘worker’ in line with existing case law of the European Court of Justice, which has defined an employment relationship in case C-66/85 as ‘a certain period of time [during which] a person performs services for and under the direction of another person in return for which he receives remuneration’. Siglinde Hasse noted that gaps in social protection are also still gender-based: For instance, persistent ‘traditional’ gender roles and insufficient affordable care services mean that it is often women (and not their husbands) who work part-time to take on domestic care responsibilities – and fall into social security traps later because they have not acquired sufficient entitlements during their professional life.
  • Having people outside social protection systems can jeopardise their financial sustainability: Those outside social protection systems that never pay into the system will still get basic public benefits if they are in need. At the aggregate level it can be a problem for the sustainability of social security systems if more and more people are economically active ‘outside the system’ and do not pay the regular social security contributions but need to be covered by essential benefits if they need them. Generally, more people paying regular contributions will make systems more sustainable. At the same time, getting everyone covered by effective and affordable social protection will also require financial efforts; however this should be seen as an investment into the health and well-being of workers as well as in the context of social protection as a fundamental right for all. To counter financing challenges in national social protection systems, a part of the dividends that employers and consumers gain from digitalisation could be used for financing of social security budgets (‘taxing robots’). Those that take the profits from digitalisation should also contribute to affordable social protection for those that pay the price.
  • According to the Treaties, the EU would have a legal competence to provide a legislative framework for social protection for all forms of employment. However, political considerations come into play when choosing an instrument for a measure, be they legislative and binding or non-legislative and recommendation-based. Non-binding recommendations by the EU may also be effective especially if their implementation is tied to EU funding or co-funding while hard legislation is not necessarily always complied with either, it was said. Klaus Heeger expressed deep dissatisfaction with the European Commission’s announcement to propose a Council Recommendation: “The European Commission’s European Pillar of Social Rights raised expectations of real results for workers, and if a non-binding Council Recommendation is the most ambitious that the EU can deliver, how can it credibly argue for more determined action by the Member States in other areas of the Pillar?” Siglinde Hasse noted that regardless of the deployed instrument, she, as a trade union practitioner, expects strong signals from the EU.
  • Both Klaus Heeger and Siglinde Hasse also emphasised the importance for trade unions to reach out to those outside regular employment relationships, labour law and social security – those that are seldomly organised either. Trade unions and social partners could work to develop methods to get people in new forms of employment into the social security systems. In the end, in this way trade unions could attract new members too, they said. After all, trade unions can only exist and be strong if they continue to broaden their membership.

Picture: [email protected] panel – Klaus Heeger, Petru Sorin Dandea, Claire Dhéret, Ragnar Horn, Maximilian Strotmann, Siglinde Hasse © CESI 2018