At its plenary session in March, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a debate with Italy’s Minister of Labour and Social Policies, Marina Elvira Calderone, on making EU labour markets stronger and more inclusive. The EESC reiterated its support for the European Commission’s proposal to strengthen national equality bodies, which are entrusted with promoting equality for all and combating discrimination in employment.
The EESC has backed the Commission’s initiative to reinforce the role and independence of national equality bodies in a bid to wipe out discrimination practices in EU labour markets and make them more inclusive and fairer for women, young people, persons with disabilities, migrants and other vulnerable groups, as well as for platform workers.
In a debate with Italian Minister of Labour and Social Policies Marina Elvira Calderone, held on 22 March, the two sides said they shared the goals of the Commission’s proposal for a directive on standards for national equality bodies aimed at increasing their effectiveness. The proposal had been made following the failure of the current legislative measures on equality to adequately enforce EU law on unequal treatment and discrimination.
In its opinion on Strengthening the role and independence of equality bodies adopted at the plenary session after the debate, the EESC stressed the importance of striking the right balance between the principle of subsidiarity and setting out the binding standards for making national bodies stronger and more efficient – a position which was echoed by the Italian minister during the debate.
“One of our top priorities must be to help everybody acquire skills that are in demand and to support job-to-job transitions, especially against the background of the green and digital transitions”, EESC president Christa Schweng said, opening the debate.
“The participation of diverse groups in the labour market is not only a matter of fairness. It makes great sense from an economic and social perspective. However, the Committee remains concerned that the protection against discrimination and inequality is not yet uniform throughout the Union, and supports strong mechanisms for their monitoring, including through the reinforcement of national equality bodies,” Ms Schweng stressed.
Creating inclusive spaces for all European workers can only be achieved through collective action, with everyone playing a part in promoting equality and inclusion, including policy-makers at EU and national level, social partners and civil society organisations.
“Equality bodies are crucial allies in the process of building a more equal labour market. The trend is positive, so we hope for continued developments towards performing job markets where equality is a reality and diversity and inclusion are highly valued,” Ms Schweng said.
Minister Calderone said her government agreed with the Commission’s goal, however stressed that it would be important to ensure consistency with the national systems and bodies that already exist, such as equality councils in Italy that safeguard equality at both national and regional level.
“The inclusion we are talking about today must remain at the heart of the European social agenda, on an equal footing with the ongoing discussion about reforming the EU’s economic and financial governance. We know how difficult it still is to ensure effective equal opportunities on the labour market. For some social groups there are still huge obstacles to accessing labour markets and social protection,” Ms Calderone said.
The minister stressed the gender gap in employment rates was still over 10 percent at the EU level. There was not a single country in the EU where this gender gap – to the detriment of women everywhere – did not exist. Young graduates also struggle to find a job. Persons with disabilities and legal migrants and refugees still encounter discrimination when looking for or trying to keep a job.
At a time of rapid demographic change and in the context of digitalisation and climate change, it is imperative to equip people with the right skills for the labour markets of the future, while paying attention to the needs of underrepresented groups in the world of work, which also include platform workers who must receive adequate social protection. This will require modernising social security networks and updating the traditional classification of labour.
“I cannot help but refer to the crucial role of the social partners and civil society represented here in the EESC. This process can only deliver social well-being and greater inclusion if we can ensure that everyone can make a contribution, and if we can implement actions and initiatives based on an effective social dialogue which is capable of responding to real needs and of providing efficient solutions,” the minister said.
In the opinion, the EESC said that equality bodies must be free of external influence, which means that they should be equipped with sufficient financial, technical and human resources. The EESC supports efforts to make equality bodies the advocates for the rights of victims of discrimination. Victims must have effective access to justice and a right to compensation for offences they suffer. There must be effective penalties for the offender, which should be deterrent, persuasive and proportionate at the same time.
Rapporteurs of the opinion, Sif Holst and Nicoletta Merlo, emphasised that failing to properly take into account intersectional and multiple forms of discrimination would be a missed opportunity.
Ms Holst said: “The issue of intersectionality is an important element. For example, as a woman with a disability, I encounter discrimination both as a woman and as a person with a disability. This cannot be separated into different boxes. The same goes for other forms of intersectional discrimination relating to, for example, age, religion, sexuality or ethnic background. We should use this opportunity to strengthen the intersectional approach of the equality bodies in their work”.
Ms Merlo said: “In pursuit of a strong, inclusive and resilient labour market in Europe, what we need, first and foremost, is to put people and their dignity at the heart of our work. We must ensure the full involvement of everyone, including all vulnerable sectors of the population. We need to make the most of social dialogue and we also need to provide backing for equality bodies, since they’re in a position to get through to the victims of discrimination”.
The EESC further recommended developing information campaigns on EU rights and respect for diversity. Cooperation with organised civil society is also essential.