- By Keith Ewing
As the European political crisis becomes ever more intense and the economic crisis ever more acute, there is a third crisis yet to unfold. This is the crisis of legality now engulfing the EU, an entity that seems to be free to do what it likes and to ignore the legal foundations on which it is supposed to be built.
The EU, its institutions and its representatives are required to act with legal authority and within the scope of legal powers. To this end, the post–Lisbon treaty is full of clearly expressed principles and obligations, the EU apparently founded on the values of ‘human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights’.
The treaty otherwise provides not only that the EU will work for sustainable development based on economic growth, but that it will do so to promote ‘a highly competitive social market economy aiming at full employment’. This will all be done while also advancing solidarity and social justice, as well as ‘equality between men and women’,
So what is the problem? The answer is that the terms of the bailout negotiated by the Troika (in which EU institutions played a prominent part) do not appear to comply with these provisions, leading to serious questions about the legality of the terms of settlement, the obligations imposed upon Greece, and the response of the last Greek government.
Evidence is to be found in the Report of a High Level Mission that visited Greece in September 2011, on behalf of the International Labour Organsiation (ILO), a UN agency responsible for setting and monitoring labour standards throughout the world. Usually the ILO is preoccupied with developing countries; now to the great shame of the EU it is concerned with austerity.
The ILO has reported on the ‘exponential’ rise in the use of part time and ‘rotation’ contracts, as well as the emergence of large numbers of ‘discouraged’ workers, who it seems have just given up. These new contractual arrangements have seen wages fall by up to 38%, accompanied by an increase in tax and social security contributions and reduced pensions.
This is being driven through while also weakening workers’ rights to trade union representation, casting aside guarantees in the Greek constitution. According to the ILO, the industrial relations system built up over many years to reflect ‘Greek realities’ is now ‘vulnerable to collapse’, these developments having a ‘destabilising impact’ on the human right to freedom of association.
The concern is not only that wages established by collective agreements have been slashed. Also, employers have now won the right not to pay collectively agreed wage rates, if they can secure the ‘agreement’ of workers to accept less. This is the ultimate form of neo-liberal flexibility, with unprotected workers being ‘liberated’ to sign away minimum terms and conditions of employment.
Yet far from ensuring that the pain is endured equally between men and women, crucially the burden is falling disproportionately on the latter. This is true especially in terms of the impact of growing levels of unemployment, and the move to part – time and rotation contracts, with women suffering additional problems of discrimination in trying to enforce maternity rights.
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