Rise in zero-hours contracts highlights need for urgent action
Labour MEPs in Strasbourg this week (7-10 March) again called for urgent action to tackle zero-hours contracts, following the latest figures showing a rise in their usage in the UK. 801,000 people in the UK were employed on a zero-hours contract between October-December 2015, up from 697,000 for the same period in 2014 - a 15 per cent rise.
I and my fellow Labour MEPs have long been calling for action on zero-hours contracts, and leading the European Parliament's calls for action. The European Commission needs to act now to tackle the problems of insecure employment, youth unemployment and poor wages, and urgently come up with policies. This is what the EU should be doing, working with national governments to strengthen workers' rights and clamp down on these unfair practices.
Far too many employers are using exploitative zero-hour contracts without a thought of the negative consequences they have on people's lives. If you work regular hours, you should have a regular contract - everyone deserves to be in quality employment and employers have a responsibility to ensure their employees are protected in the workplace.
All workers deserve adequate wages, social security protection and decent workplace conditions. Labour MEPs will continue to fight for quality jobs with job security in the UK and across the EU.
Standing up to China for a fair playing field for our industries
In February I called on the European Commission and the UK government to use China's rise to market economy status (MES) by the end of 2016 as an opportunity to pressure the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to demand Beijing plays fair and stops uncompetitive practices like the dumping of steel, which is crushing Britain's steel industry. The Commission has had 15 years to address this problem. We are running out of time and we must see real engagement from the Commission to reassure European industry and workers that the EU will be properly equipped to deal with global overcapacity and dumping on our market after the end of this year.
We cannot allow China to solve its overcapacity by dumping on the European market causing devastating effects on industrial communities across Britain. The EU has the ability to protect our economy against this unfair trade. It's not protectionist to want adequate protection from unfair competition - we urgently need updated trade defence instruments to ensure this. It is outrageous that the UK government is blocking any strengthening of current EU trade defence instruments, and is even contemplating giving China a permanent permit to dump.
Commission presents new proposal on posted workers
During this week’s Strasbourg Plenary (7-10 March) the European Parliament debated new proposed and revised rules for posted workers – workers who are employed in one Member State and temporarily sent to work in another.
The Commission’s proposed revision was for posted workers to be legally entitled to the same pay as local host country workers, rather than only to the host country's minimum wage. There is concern that this can create wage differences between posted and local workers and potentially lead to unfair competition between companies. The Commission also proposed that workers posted for longer than two years should be deemed to have been integrated into the host labour market, so as to prevent abuses such as employing them under less favourable social conditions.
Labour MEPs broadly welcomed the Commission's proposals for pay equality but called for more to be done to close loopholes and create a truly fair system. While the proposals are welcome they don't go far enough, and work will be needed to strengthen them when the plans come before MEPs. Labour MEPs believe posted workers should benefit from the protection of the collective agreements that are actually applied in the host country. The Commission failed to ensure posted workers would benefit from collective bargaining.
Present legislation dates from 1996 and since then the EU labour market has changed with the ratio of the lowest to highest national minimum wages in member states increasing from 1:3 in 1996 to 1:10 today. If equal pay for equal work is to mean anything, it means people receiving the same rates of pay regardless of where they're from, and irrespective of whether they're temporary or not - we cannot allow companies to get away with exploiting workers and undercutting wages.
Trade in Services agreement must protect public services and protect workers’ rights
I and my fellow Labour MEPs voted in February for the exemption of public services, protection of workers' rights and greater transparency and data protection in the EU Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA).
The European Parliament was voting on a resolution setting out a series of demands from MEPs to the European Commission, which is negotiating TiSA on behalf of EU national governments. These include the full exclusion of all public services; strong safeguards for workers; a new binding clause to guarantee data privacy; and greater transparency.
TiSA is currently being negotiated between 23 World Trade Organisation (WTO) parties, including the EU. It is intended as a tool to reform the rules surrounding global trade in services, which have been in force since 1995 through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
The trade in services is a significant and growing part of the EU economy and the current rules are grossly outdated. Creating a level playing field and opening global markets to European service providers is long overdue and crucial to the protection and promotion of jobs in the European Union.
In no EU country are jobs so linked to the services sector as in the UK - more than half the UK workforce are employed in this field. The Trade in Services Agreement is an opportunity to boost our economy and to update trade rules for the benefit of all. Positive reform must ensure the protection of public services, workers’ rights and the ability of governments’ right to regulate.
Unemployment to remain virtually static
The European Commission, in its winter 2016 economic forecast, has predicted that the moderate growth and unemployment rate we have been experiencing will improve only “at a snail’s pace”. The Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, Pierre Moscovici acknowledged that more work is needed to increase investment and called for richer member states to increase public investment.
On that point, Veronica Nilsson, Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), agreed: “Richer countries must invest more to drive growth and create jobs - we are with Commissioner Moscovici on that one.
“We do however have further concerns” added Ms Nilsson, “the Commissioner has said nothing about much needed wage increases, or the rise in low paid insecure work, despite his expectation that private consumption would be the main driver of growth next year.
“Moderate growth is obviously better than no growth, but it is deeply disappointing and worrying that unemployment is expected to fall at only such a slow pace.”
It was a very varied agenda this week, with several items on trade, women's rights, undeclared work, tax and emissions testing. The plenary also welcomed guests Mr. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia and former MEP, and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to address MEPs.
The big news for the UK this week was the deal reached by David Cameron and Donald Tusk on Britain's renegotiation of its relationship with the EU. The deal means that a referendum is almost certain before the end of the summer. Labour MEPs were pleased to see that whilst UKIP and the Tories wanted workers' rights slashed, this did not happen. Rights like a minimum four weeks' paid holiday; parental leave; flexible working; equal protection for part-time workers have been secured in the deal. Our priority now is to lead a strong campaign and convince UK voters that we must stay in the EU to protect its vital contribution to our economy, rights and security.
This week Labour MEPs voted for the creation of a mechanism to tackle undeclared work. National authorities will take the lead in enhancing cross-border cooperation on this exploitation through the development of common measurement tools, a permanent training capacity and a peer review system and strategies and campaigns to raise awareness. In the UK there are an estimated 600,000 undeclared workers (which accounts for 2% of the workforce); this shadow economy makes up 10% of UK GDP. Clearly this is a system which creates poor working conditions for workers and creates unfair competition between colleagues. People are forced to sign contracts which class them as self-employed when in practices the only work for a company. They can be fired without warning, have no access to sick or holiday pay and have reduced benefit entitlements and access to employment tribunals. The European Union has always led the fight for better working conditions and workers' rights and it now needs to act for vulnerable undeclared workers.
The VW emissions scandal has affected many of our constituents, and Labour MEPs have voted for an objection which calls for the European Commission to come back with better, stronger proposals to swiftly introduce Real Driving Emissions (RDE) testing. The objection called for more stringent emissions tests for vehicles, reflecting pollution emitted in the road and not just in cars; it was voted down 323-312, with Tory MEPs voting against. For years, Labour MEPs have been calling for a new RDE test to be devised so new vehicles would be in line with emissions standards that were introduced 10 years ago. We must now ensure that there are no more delays in introducing RDE tests and that in future, any attempts to revise the requirements are done so in transparent and democratic negotiations.
Members of the European Parliament were asked to vote on a report by the International Trade Committee which sets out MEPs' demands to the European Commission for the ongoing Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) negotiations. Your Labour MEPs secured the inclusion of text calling for the full exemption of public services, the protection of workers' rights, a new binding clause to guarantee data privacy and greater transparency. It is an agreement currently being negotiated by 23 parties to the World Trade Organisation, including the EU. In no EU country are jobs so linked to the services sector as in the UK - more than half the UK workforce is employed in this field. The Trade in Services Agreement is an opportunity not only to boost our economy but to update trade rules for the benefit of all.
With David Cameron showing no signs of acting to protect the UK steel industry, Labour MEPs are more determined than ever to press the EU Commission and UK Government to use China's possible rise to market economy status (MES) as an opportunity to demand Beijing plays fair and stops uncompetitive practices like steel dumping. Europe can't be a soft touch for unfairly subsidised imports from China. It's not protectionist to want adequate protection from unfair competition - we urgently need updated trade defence instruments to ensure this.
Labour MEPs voted for a resolution calling on the European Commission to urgently present a new EU strategy for gender equality. Gender equality has stalled in recent years and the EU, as a long standing advocate and promoter of equality, must move for a clear and comprehensive strategy for 2016 onwards. We need concrete action to cover a wide-range of issues such as the gender pay gap, equality in economic and political decision-making and legislation to combat violence against women. UKIP MEPs voted against the resolution.
I also took to the floor during plenary to push Commissioner Andriukaitis on the need to harmonise pet identification and registration systems and requirements across the European Union. Constituents from every member state have made it clear that they want action to stop the illegal trade in thousands of pets which takes place every year. Animals that are bred in huge numbers and in cramped, inhumane conditions and exposed to disease are sold onto new owners who have no idea of the level of care they need, how old they are or where they've come from. These details are crucial for ensuring that pets are up-to-date with their injections, which is an important step in helping us prevent the spread of diseases between animals and humans.
It was definitely not a sleepy start to the European Parliament's 2016 plenary sessions; we hit the ground running. With several important items on the agenda for employment, foreign affairs and the internal market, it was already expected to be a busy week. On top of that, we welcomed the new Dutch presidency of the European Council, whilst keeping one eye on European leaders attending the World Economic Forum which was taking place in Switzerland.
Labour MEPs also used the spotlight of the plenary session to promote two important issues for our constituents: the UK government's ongoing failure to apply for EU funding to help flood victims, and the review of EU state rules to help the steel industry.
Several Labour MEPs, including myself and fellow Scottish Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, represent regions where there has been severe flooding over recent weeks. As we have been saying time and again during this period, the EU has the EU Solidarity Fund which is specifically available for response to natural disasters. We wrote to Mr. Cameron in December (http://www.eurolabour.org.uk/floods-north-england-scotland-eu-solidarity-fund) to urge him to seek the money to help affected areas. As an EU member state, the UK is eligible for money from this fund, though the government do have to apply for it. Following floods in Bulgaria, Italy and Romania, these countries were able to claim €66.5m (£48m). Labour MEPs have not yet been able to draw any response on Mr. Cameron's inaction from his government, but we will continue to press him.
Labour MEPs continue to lead the call for EU action to save European steel industries. We have called on the European Commission to review EU state aid rules for the steel industry and secured an amendment to a report on EU competition policy calling on the Commission to review these state aid rules for energy intensive industries, guaranteeing effective carbon leakage protection and providing fair opportunities for EU industries. The UK steel industry is currently facing a combination of rising steel prices, social dumping, and an influx of cheap Chinese steel and climbing energy costs. However, we shouldn't have to be relying on the Commission. The government's MEPs voted against a report which recommended a level playing field for steel industries across Europe and the UK government has done nothing to help. Only on Tuesday, hundreds of jobs were lost at Tata plants in Wales, which will impact companies, communities and families. This is not a case of the UK government being unable to intervene, they are simply unwilling to. We will continue to update constituents on this story over the coming days and weeks.
In other votes this week, we called for EU action to tackle female entrepreneurship and means to raise skills to tackle youth unemployment. The EU can be a significant force to promote a better work-life balance and encourage girls' education in business and innovation; currently in the UK, men are twice as likely to start up a business as women. Boosting female entrepreneurship could bring £60 billion to the UK economy. We also voted for a report which calls on the Commission and national governments in the EU to act to increase the skills of young people to improve their prospects for finding a job. The report also calls for national governments to take action to prevent trainees and apprentices from being abused; recognise and strengthen dual learning; and implement immediately the operational programmes of the EU Youth Employment Initiative.
During this week's proceedings, the International Trade Committee adopted a resolution regarding the ongoing negotiations over the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) which called set out a firm series of demands to the European Commission. As the Socialists and Democrats coordinator for International Trade, I was very pleased that my group let the call for full exclusion of all public services, pushed for strong safeguards for workers, a binding new clause to guarantee data privacy and greater transparency. The trade in services is a significant and growing part of the EU economy. Creating a level playing field and opening global markets to European service providers is long overdue and crucial to the protection and promotion of jobs in the European Union. In no EU country are jobs so linked to the services sector as in the UK. The Trade in Services Agreement is an opportunity not only to boost our economy but to update trade rules for the benefit of all. Preventing social dumping and ensuring strict data protection is vital as e-commerce grows.
A report on the Digital Single Market (DSM) was put before MEPs on Tuesday. Labour MEPs tabled a number of amendments which would address the gaps on social and employment issues, universal access and coverage and improving digital skills. The DSM is a fantastic example of how British consumers benefit from EU membership. For instance, only last month, the Commission unveiled proposals which would allow travellers to watch geo-blocked services such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer whilst abroad. In particular, Labour MEPs pushed to ensure that future legislation takes into account and caters for those in certain workplaces, and rural and remote communities who have been left behind before. EU countries including the UK must invest in more superfast broadband and roll it out ASAP. The future lies in a knowledge economy, and we're working at an EU level to ensure that this is realised.
Labour MEPs supported new EU regulations that will raise safety standards for appliances such as boilers, gas cookers, ovens, barbecues and patio heaters, in an effort to prevent fatal gas poisoning. Continuing our support for strong common standards across a range of areas and industries, we believe this new regulation would ensure that a range of solid safety standards could put a stop to leaks of harmful gaseous substances. This is an issue Labour in Europe has long campaigned for EU action on, with several previous campaigns for carbon monoxide safety in particular. EU action can save lives. The regulations now go forward to national governments for approval, and are set to come into force in 2018.
David Martin and his fellow Labour MEPs voted today for the exemption of public services, protection of workers' rights and greater transparency and data protection in the EU Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA).
Scottish MEP David Martin has warned public concerns over trade must be addressed following the adoption of a resolution on the ongoing negotiations for a Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) by the European Parliament international trade committee.