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Employment and Social Affairs in the EU

24 August 2006
by eub2 -- last modified 24 August 2006

More and better jobs and equal opportunities are the watchwords of European employment and social policy. A function of the European Commission is to make sure that everyone is equipped for change as the EU evolves into a more competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy. The main framework is a Social Policy Agenda designed to link economic, employment and social policies, whilst at the same time ensuring that these policies are environmentally sustainable.


The two cornerstones of the European Union's employment and social policies are the European Employment Strategy on job creation and labour market reform strategies and a Social Agenda designed to ensure that the benefits of the EU's growth reach everyone in society and every region of the EU.

The European Employment Strategy

Common priorities and individual objectives for EU member states' employment policies, are set out in multi-annual Employment Guidelines agreed jointly by all member states. The current guidelines cover the period 2005-2008. They are part of the Integrated Guidelines for Growth and Jobs for 2005-2008, which also include economic management. The employment guidelines are the basis for national reform programmes and the employment component of the EU's 'Lisbon Programme', which covers all EU action to promote knowledge and innovation, make Europe a more attractive place to invest and work, and create more and better jobs.

The Employment Guidelines address the need to implement employment policies which aim to achieve full employment, improve quality and productivity at work, and strengthen social and territorial cohesion. They also cover ways of improving the match of labour market needs and available skills. They recognise that labour market flexibility needs to be combined with employment security and recognise the role of social partners. They advocate employment-friendly labour cost developments and wage-setting mechanisms, expansion and improvement of investment in human capital and adaptation of education and training systems to new skill requirements.

The Social Agenda

The 2005-2010 Agenda covers policies designed to provide jobs, fight poverty and promote equal opportunities for all. In partnership with public authorities at every level from local to national, employer and worker representatives, and non-governmental organisations, the Agenda is a framework for promoting portability of pension and social security entitlements in order to create a truly European labour market, getting more people - particularly young people and women - into work, updating labour law to reflect new forms of work, such as short-term contracts, and managing restructuring through social dialogue. It is also a framework for supporting member states in reforming pensions and health care, tackling poverty and the employment and social issues emerging as populations age, as well as fostering equal opportunities, and eradicating inequality and discrimination.

The European Social Fund

The European Social Fund plays a major role in funding the necessary investment in human capital with €60 billion available between 2000 and 2006 to develop both the work skills and the social skills which make it easier for people to find work or set up businesses of their own. Special attention is paid to funding for areas of the EU with particularly high levels of unemployment or low average incomes.

Minimum standards for all

The EU has a long tradition of ensuring a decent working environment throughout the EU and of protecting workers' rights through common minimum rules on working conditions, and health and safety at work, e.g. protection from noise or exposure to chemicals, for regnant women and workers under 18. Other legislation spells out basic rights on working hours, parental leave, the basic information all employers must supply to new employees about the job and the terms on which they have been hired, the terms of any collective redundancy and the same treatment for part-time or temporary workers as for permanent full-time employees. Equal pay for equal work and protection against sexual harassment are also enshrined in EU law.

The EU has outlawed discrimination on the basis of gender, racial or ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, and religion or belief. This is bolstered by legislation banning gender-based discrimination in access to goods and services (with some exceptions for insurance), policy strategies on combating discrimination and xenophobia, and on ensuring that gender issues are taken into account in all EU policies. A European Institute for Gender Equality will be set up in 2007.

The EU also promotes modern labour relations and dialogue between worker representatives and employers. Sound labour relations not only further worker protection, but contribute to competitiveness. The European Commission encourages corporate social responsibility by promoting the concept that social and environmental concerns should be an integral part of business strategies.

Pan-European mobility for all

The right to work anywhere in the EU is a fundamental right of all EU citizens, subject to some transitional arrangements for countries which joined the EU in 2004. The Public Employment Services of the EU, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are linked through a single service, Eures, which acts as a one-stop shop for job-seekers. The EU encourages worker mobility for the benefits it brings to the individual in terms of personal and vocational or career development and as a means to match skills to demand. 2006 is the European Year of Workers' Mobility.

The ability to work in another EU countries carries with it the right to most social benefits for the whole family - rights which generally extend as well to retirees living in a different EU country from the one in which they spent their working life.

The right to health care anywhere in the EU also applies to emergency care for travellers.

Social inclusion and social protection

Social security systems in the individual EU countries reflect specific traditions, social advances and cultural heritage and are a matter for national laws. Member states co-ordinate their policies, however, on the basis that everyone should have access to social benefits, which:

  • provide a safety net, but make it financially more attractive to work wherever possible;
  • provide pensions and quality health care at a sustainable cost;
  • promote social inclusion and fight poverty.

Technical back-up

Three agencies provide technical input into EU work on employment, carry out research and disseminate best practice. They are the:

  • European Agency for Health and Safety at Work in Bilbao;
  • European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions in Dublin;
  • European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna.

EU Employment and Social Affairs policy web links

European Commission Employment and Social Affairs policy DG
EU funding opportunities in the field of Employment and Social Affairs
Summaries of EU Legislation in Force: Employment and Social Affairs Policy
Recent case-law of the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance : EU Employment and Social Affairs policy
Further information on EU Employment and Social Affairs Policy on Europa

Source: European Commission
Last updated: March 2006