Several EU countries had elections in the past year and have shifted to the political left. This tends to mean a government more friendly toward employees than employers, and if the early declarations of policy are anything to go by, this also indicates a shift away from temporary work. The belief that a permanent job is the most-highly prized form of employment runs deep within European politics.
I recall the negotiations over what became the Agency Workers Directive, which took more than 10 years before the social partners — the business groups on one side and unions on the other — could find a workable text in 2008. European representatives expressed deep levels of skepticism, if not downright hostility, toward the UK’s liberal temporary work market, which it had deregulated and abolished licensing in 1999.
One major achievement of those negotiations was an acknowledgement of the value of temporary work, which “contributes to job creation and to participation and integration in the labor market.” The second was a requirement for all EU member states to review any restrictions or prohibitions on the use of temporary agency work that are not justified on one of the grounds stated in the directive: “the protection of temporary agency workers, the requirements of health and safety at work or the need to ensure that the labor market functions properly, and abuses are prevented.”
It is the third of these justifications for placing restrictions on temporary work that is currently being invoked in countries such as Spain, Norway and the Netherlands for a change of policy.
Spain. Spain has the highest proportion of temporary employment in the EU with 26.8% of employees on a temporary contract in 2018, according to data from Eurostat, the statistical body of the European Union. Spain is expecting to receive €69.5 billion (US $78.6 billion) in funding from the European Union, which must be spent on investments and reforms that underpin the green and digital transitions and that also promote social cohesion. One of the ways they have pledged to achieve this is to limit the permitted reasons to enter into a temporary or fixed-term contract and reduce the maximum duration of such contracts.
Negotiations on the proposals are continuing between the coalition government, trade unions and business organizations and are due to be concluded before the end of 2021.
The Netherlands. The Netherlands is still waiting for agreement between its political parties to form a coalition but an indication of the government’s likely intention was set out in the advisory policy of the Social and Economic Council. This heralded changes to temporary work contracts and stated that flexible work should be made less attractive. In light of this, changes have been negotiated to the collective labor agreement for the temporary work sector.
Norway. Norway’s new coalition government has also recently published its manifesto, known as the “Hurdal Platform,” named after the rural area north of Oslo where they held discussions since the election in September. Changes outlined by the manifesto in relation to workplace regulation include new restrictions on temporary employment and reducing the scope of the staffing industry.
Germany. The other European country that has a new coalition government is Germany. Its agenda for employment and industrial relations rather grudgingly states that hiring out workers and contracts for work and services are necessary, but also promises effective legal enforcement in the event of violations of labor law and occupational health and safety.
From the proposals laid out by the new political masters in several European countries, it is apparent that the staffing industry and businesses committed to contingent forms of labor have a long way to go to educate political groups and governments about the value of temporary work and workers.