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EU standardisation of services worries trade unions

| Text: Kerstin Ahlberg

Common EU standards are aiming to speed up cross-border trade in services. Just as long as this doesn’t mean introducing EU rules through the backdoor which would be in breach with member states’ labour law and collective agreements, say trade unions – whose concern is shared by the Swedish government.

Since the 1980s the EU has used standards as a tool to boost cross-border trade in goods. The European Commission asks a standardisation body to develop a standard for a certain product, and if a manufacturer later says that for instance a machine is made to this standard, employers in all member countries can assume that it also meets EU work environment legislation. Standards even play a role in public procurement processes. The procuring authority will refer to an EU standard to describe what it wants to buy. In this way the internal market trade is made easier for both sellers and buyers.

So far, though, this has mainly applied to goods. Now the Commission hopes to stimulate cross-border trade in services in the same way. This has created concern among trade unions, and they get support from the Swedish government.

They’re concerned because the standardisation bodies are private organisations which make up their own rules and whose business is ruled by the needs and desires of the marketplace. While all parties concerned, including trade unions, are meant to be allowed to take part in the standardisation work, private business maintains a dominating role – not least because of resources. Furthermore, the standards can include rules on pretty much whatever the ‘market‘ requires. And this is where trade unions say they have found some worrying examples.     

Page after page in the European standard for airport and aviation security services which came into force in 2011 (EN 16082:2011) details for instance the security services’ human resources. Most of it is regulated through laws and collective agreements in the member states – and should not be regulated anywhere else either, say the trade unions. The standard lists a range of ways in which an employee would be in serious breach of his or her employment contract, in other words the things that would give the employer good reason to fire the employee.   

The Swedish government doesn’t like this either. In a written exchange with the Commission it points out that standards should be limited to deal with the requirements of the actual service, not those providing the service. Just like employment law should not be influenced by the service directive, the Commission should highlight for the standardisation bodies that standards for services must not be dealing with terms of employment, work environment or the right to negotiate and agree to collective agreements and so on, the government said.

The Commission agrees that a standard ‘ideally’ should concentrate on the service per se. It nevertheless dismisses the government’s objection as irrelevant by pointing out that standards are voluntary. And that is true – at least formally. No one has to subscribe to any one standard. But in reality the voluntary nature of standards is often an illusion for providers who want to stay in business. To quote but one example: if an aviation authority which is procuring safety services says these must follow the 2011 standard, all providers who want to be part of the tender must fulfil that standard’s demands. If not there is no point of making an offer. According to the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union this has already happened in Spain.

And the Commission has asked the European standardisation bodies to choose a number of areas which could benefit from being standardised. One example is precisely the standardisation of service providers’ personnel policy. 

Those who are interested in labour law seem to have got a new area to watch.

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