Within the scope of an evening event, AK EUROPA, the Brussels liaison offices of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB Europabüro) and the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) presented perspectives on European minimum standards in unemployment insurance and minimum income schemes on 14th November 2019. The timing was well chosen; after all, the event took place shortly before the second birthday of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) and provided important impetus for the new European legislative period.
Oliver Röpke, Head of the Brussels liaison office of the Austrian Trade Union Federation ÖGB and President of the Workers' Group, EESC, referred to the topicality of the event in light of the EPSR and emphasised that trade unions would urge for effective implementation of the Pillar. Legally binding minimum standards were required in particular for Principles 13 (Unemployment benefits) and 14 (Minimum income) of the Pillar. In view of the new Commission and the announced action plan it was now necessary to shape the agenda and to submit proposals in order to consequently pursue the social upward convergence.
In light of profound transformation processes in the labour market, caused by climate change, digitalisation and an aging population, Ingrid Reischl, General Secretary of the Austrian Trade Union Federation, demanded that social security systems had to be made weather proof. In respect of unemployment insurance, European minimum standards were needed in four areas: amount and duration as well as coverage (coverage rate) of unemployment benefits, alongside with continuing vocational training. The latter should not be just a “nice-to-have”, but had to be certified as a legal claim with financial support.
Alice Kundtner, Deputy Director and Divisional Head of Social Affairs of AK Vienna commented that the demand for minimum standards in unemployment insurance differed from the Commission proposal regarding the European unemployment reinsurance scheme. Minimum standards would be beneficial from an economic perspective, as they would have a positive effect on private consumption whilst at the same time improving social security. A binding EU Directive was required in view of the great differences between Member States. With regard to the amount of unemployment benefits, Kundtner referred to OECD data and demanded a net replacement rate of 75 % of the previous income as minimum standard. The recipient should be entitled to receiving it for one year, after having been in employment for one year. However, with regard to minimum income schemes, one had to consider that many people would not claim this benefit due to stigmatisation and out of fear of losing their property. Robust security benefits, combined with continuing vocational training would reduce the number of those needing a minimum income scheme and make it the most effective recipe for re-entering the labour market with matching skills.
Barbara Kauffmann, Director for Employment and Social Governance at DG Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion (European Commission) referred to the Commission’s benchmarking on unemployment insurance, which would make an important contribution to the EU-wide observation of social standards. It would be important to measure the differences between Member States in order to derive reference values thereof. Benchmarking would put the issue on the agenda of Member States, which subsequently would make a greater effort. Added to this would be the country-specific recommendations in the framework of the European Semester. For example, it was recommended to Hungary to improve unemployment benefits. Kauffmann conceded that minimum standards might have a positive effect, stressing the current patchwork of regulations in the Member States. Minimum standards would be conceivable in the course of setting up a European unemployment reinsurance scheme.
Annelie Buntenbach, Member of the Executive Board of the German Trade Union Confederation, clearly supported EU-wide minimum income schemes that would establish decent living conditions for all and demanded an EU Framework Directive. She called to mind that inadequate social benefits would put pressure on wages and working conditions, as people would be urged to take any job, whatever the conditions. Regarding the level of the minimum income pay there was no EU-wide “one-fits-all” solution. Apart from a legal obligation, one would need methods, which would calculate the level of minimum income tailor-made for recipients. Referring to an expert opinion by DGB and the German Anti Poverty Conference Buntenbach argued that the EU definitely had legal competences to put forward socio-political minimum standards. What was lacking was political will.