Age discrimination law is now in force, completing the implementation of the EU Equality Directive, one of the major pieces of EU legislation in the last five years. Information and consultation laws now exist across Europe. TUPE, also based in EU law, has been updated. So what does Brussels have in store for us next?

The answer lies in a recently issued Green Paper in which the EU Commission sets out a framework for Modernising labour law to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This has formed the basis of a public consultation in the first part of 2007.

The emphasis of the document is on the commercial drive for the labour market in Europe to be flexible, resulting in increasingly diverse forms of employment. The Commission refers to the possibility of a two-tier labour market, divided between the permanently employed ‘insiders’, and the flexibly employed ‘outsiders’ whose security and rights may be more precarious.

The purpose of the paper, and the Directives which may emanate from it, is to look at how labour law can advance ’flexicurity’, supporting flexibility and offering workers security as well. The paper also invites debate on how labour law and different contractual structures could facilitate job creation, labour market flexibility and the transitioning of workers from one type of relationship to another. It also places better regulation on the agenda, which might help reduce administrative burdens.

Amongst the specific issues raised are the following.

  • Should be clearer rules on whether a person is employed or self-employed?
  • Should be a floor of rights, applicable to all workers regardless of the type of contract under which they are engaged?
  • Should the employment status of temporary agency workers be clarified?
  • Should there be a consistent definition of ‘worker’ across the EU so that workers who move across borders receive employment rights consistently?

There will be those who may regard increased labour flexibility and increased security and rights for workers as incompatible. The Agency Workers Directive for example, aimed at giving temporary agency staff equal treatment with permanent employees, was very unpopular within UK business and was continually resisted by the UK Government. The Commission is tackling some complex issues in this Green Paper but some of the messages it will receive from employers are likely to be plain and simple.

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