Lisbon will strengthen protection for workers


Opponents have tried to misrepresent the treaty, claiming it would erode workplace rights. They are wrong writes BERNARD HARBOR.

AT THIS time of deep economic recession and growing unemployment, it has never been more important for Ireland to be a respected and fully-participating member of an EU equipped to deliver sustainable investment, employment and economic recovery.

Equally, workers and their unions are concerned that some employers and politicians want to exploit the recession to drive down wages and erode hard-won workplace rights. Some Lisbon opponents have tried to exploit this fear and have misrepresented the treaty, claiming it would erode existing workplace rights. They are wrong.

Nobody argues that Lisbon is a panacea for working people or their unions. The ongoing political contest about the direction of EU policies and actions, which predates the treaty by decades, will continue regardless of whether or not it is ratified.

Trade unions will continue to campaign for a “social Europe”, which recognises the importance of markets and cross-border trade but insists that protection of workers, citizens, communities and the environment are just as important.

This social Europe approach has already delivered many benefits and protections for Irish and European workers, including most of our laws governing equal opportunities, gender pay equality, paid maternity leave, parental and adoptive leave, health and safety protection, and working time limits including legal entitlements to paid holidays.

These extremely progressive measures are tangible evidence of the long European tradition of solidarity, which informed the post-war formation and development of the EU. And, although it’s far from perfect, most unions believe Lisbon ratification would immediately give supporters of a social Europe some important new tools to help win improved rights for workers, consumers and citizens. This is because it would establish the European Charter of Fundamental Rights as primary EU law for the first time, giving a wide range of human and civil rights the same legal status as existing EU laws and treaties governing internal trade and the free market.

Among other things, the charter’s 50 specific articles include workers’ rights to representation, collective bargaining and collective action, including strike action.

Irish opponents of the treaty point to four recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings – Lavel, Viking, Ruffert and Luxembourg – as proof that Lisbon ratification would be bad for workers. This is a strange argument, not least because these decisions were based on EU law as it exists now, prior to Lisbon ratification. Furthermore, the four cases were lost primarily for reasons that stem from the inadequate transposition of EU laws or other inadequacies in domestic law, which would not be directly affected by the treaty.

On the basis of these cases, some in the No camp have also argued that the ECJ is fundamentally anti-worker and uniformly favours business interests. This argument completely ignores other highly positive ECJ rulings – many of them recent – concerning gender equality, equal pay, fixed-term workers’ rights, and carers’ rights.

More to the point, Lisbon ratification would most likely have strengthened the trade unions’ hand in these cases. The first and immediate benefit of achieving full legal status for the charter is that the ECJ would have to place as much weight on the charter as it does on other EU laws and treaties.

Although it would not give workplace rights precedence over market rules, it would for the first time give them equivalence when the ECJ makes its rulings. Trade unionists, including European Trade Union Confederation general secretary John Monks, have said this could have been significant in recent controversial judgments.

Secondly, Lisbon ratification could be very significant on the controversial issue of Irish collective bargaining rights. If the treaty is ratified, and the charter is given full legal force, unions would be free to take a suitable Irish case on collective bargaining rights to the Labour Court, which could then refer it to the ECJ under Article 28 of the charter (which enshrines rights to collective bargaining). If successful, such a case would automatically override Irish case law, including that decided in the Supreme Court.

Thirdly, establishing the charter’s 50 provisions as primary EU law would prevent Ireland and other member states from rowing back on existing legal rights where they relate to EU laws, treaties or regulations. This would effectively strengthen worker protections at a time when employers, politicians and others are calling for deregulation as part of the Government’s response to the recession. And that’s why it is dangerously complacent to suppose that the charter is less relevant because some of its provisions already exist in Irish or European law.

Finally, achieving full legal status for the charter would strengthen trade union campaigns for enhanced Irish legal protections for workers. Although the charter’s provisions would not automatically apply to all domestic Irish law, the rights it enshrines would have to apply when the EU is legislating, when its member states were implementing or transposing EU law, and when the Irish courts and the ECJ were interpreting EU legislation.

Irish unions would continue to campaign to have the charter enshrined in Irish legislation too. This won’t be easy, but it will never happen if the charter has not first been adopted as primary EU law.

Bernard Harbor is information officer of Impact, the Republic’s largest public sector trade union, and a member of the Charter Group, which today launches Lisbon and Your Rights at Work: Why the Lisbon Treaty is good for workers and their unions