© 2004
Interview with Reiner Hoffmann, ETUC Deputy General Secretary
ETUC = European Trade Union Confederation with headoffice in Brussels

FotoFotoQuestion: What is the reason that the long expected revision of the EWC Directive is still not on the table yet?

Hoffmann: There are three essential reasons. At first the European Commission, which has not started yet the second phase of consultation for the revision of the EWC Directive. This can be explained with a momentary resistance within the Commission, to take any initiative on labour and social legislation. Secondly there is a heavy reservation against the revision of the EWC Directive at the employers' confederation BusinessEurope, they officially do not see need for this. Thirdly, there is no great euphoria in most member states either to take up the cause of that topic. On the contrary, with the UK we have at least one member state which is willing to organize a minority blockade if necessary.

Question: What is the explanation that despite the existing Directive councils exist only in about one third of the almost 2,300 companies covered by the Directive?

Hoffmann: This is correct. Although it has to be said that these more than 800 companies due to their size cover more than two thirds of the employees concerned.

Question: What is the ETUC doing to get it changed?

Hoffmann: We are just about to obtain a summary for ourselves on how many negotiations are going on at the moment. But of course it is necessary to look in the mirror. After all, the employees and trade unions must get active themselves in the case of a formation. For us this implies to intensify our engagement considerably. At the ETUC congress in Seville we agreed among other things to conduct a campaign with the aim to increase the number considerably within the next four years. In doing so we work closely with the European industry federations and the unions in the member states.

Question: What are the central demands for the revision of the Directive?

Hoffmann: Our demands begin already with the erection of the EWC. The negotiation period of three years is far too long. Some companies abuse this period to prevent the quick formation of an EWC. We know that the company structure can change through buying ups and sales completely within three years. This then leads to further delays again and again. The negotiation period should therefore be reduced to six or to 12 months at most.

The other central demand is a precise definition of what has to be understood by information and consultation. In this case the measuring stick for us is the definition as it applies in the European company. It must be made sure primarily that information and consultation is carried out on time, that is before obligatory decisions are taken in the enterprise. Only in such a way the EWC can try to effectively impact the company decisions in order to prevent possible negative consequences for the employees or at least minimise the effects. Another essential area is the meeting frequency and the quality of the working conditions of the EWC. As a standard, workers' representatives shall have two EWC meetings per annum in future. Primarily it is all about to form committees to single topics which then can carry out independent meetings to deepen the topics between EWC meetings. In qualitative regard we also see the necessity for the employers to finance external experts in future because in more complex restructuring cases the need for expertise rises inevitably.

But also in the area of training still more must happen. An EWC member can fulfil his task more effectively when he or she is entitled to take part in training. Foreign language skills must be promoted particularly. An essential for us is also the recognition of trade unions which fulfil an important support and coordination function.

But last not least, we do not regard the threshold of 1,000 employees as up-to-date any more. Since the EU enlargement the number of companies with cross-border activities and less than 1,000 employees has increased enormously. It is not acceptable to refuse to workers in smaller companies the right to information and consultation. According to the Charter of Fundamental Rights this must be regarded as a basic right for all employees.

Question: As of when can one count on the revision of the Directive?

Hoffmann: The pressure on the European Commission has increased considerably. The European Parliament has asked the Commission repeatedly to put its suggestions for the revision finally on the table. The European Economic and Social Committee, to which employer representatives belong to with one third, has also sent a reminder to review the Directive. And in everyday practice we always experience more frequently the limits of the EWC Directive so that the pressure also grows out of the companies. Finally it depends on a clear signal too, that the European Union is not only benefical for the economy and the improvement of competitiveness. It must set clear signals for the people. Among other things it means that employee rights are strengthened. This will play a major role for the elections of the European Parliament in the year 2009. The Commission would therefore be well advised to get active with a concrete suggestion still this year, so that a revision can be adopted by the Council of Employment and Social Policy Ministers before the elections.

Reiner Hoffmann was Deputy General Secretary of the ETUC between 2003 and 2009. Before he was a director of the Brussels based European trade union institute (ETUI). Before his time in Brussels the social scientist and economist worked in the German Hans Böckler foundation for more than ten years until 1994. He is a member of the German chemical industrial union (IG BCE).

Reiner Hoffmann was interviewed by Bernhard Stelzl on August 9th, 2007.

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