László Andor has a lively debate with trade unions and drops by the EU-OSHA stand!

Brenda O'Brien

László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, faced some tough questions from the delegates attending the 12th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation in Athens today. It was gloves off time for the people who took part in a Round Table discussion with him on inequality and the effects of the crisis. But the Commissioner was eager to enter the debate and the discussion was lively.

In a session that included senior trade union heavyweights such as Candido Méndez, General Secretary of the UGT, Spain, and Gloria Mills on behalf of the ETUC Women’s Committee, Commissioner Andor outlined the Commission’s efforts to reduce the inequalities that existed within and between Member States.

The Commissioner focused on income, gender and territorial inequalities as well as mentioning the commitment in the EU to place poverty high on the political agenda. In addition, he was well aware that women earned on average 25 per cent less than men.

What’s more, the Commissioner added, a person born in Lithuania could expect to live twelve years less than a person born in Sweden.

He didn’t shy away from the controversial austerity measures, strongly opposed by the ETUC.

“The austerity question is part of the stabilization effort. But, even in times of austerity, we cannot forget social inequality. So, what instruments can we use? Can we lessen inequality by taxing? We must recognize that tax and social benefit systems have limited capacities to reduce inequalities. So, how can we improve the earnings of middle and low income earnings? How can we reduce the gender gap and the gap between permanent and temporary job holders? Can training help? How can the European Social Fund help?” he asked.

These were all issues that the European Commission was examining and the idea of inclusive growth required this ongoing dialogue with the ETUC. He reiterated that for him it was not fair that a CEO should earn 500 times more than an employee.

Cándido Méndez said that the European Commission needed to rethink its policies. Countries like Greece and Portugal could not repay the debt. There would have to be a new direction. The austerity measures would create even more unemployment.

The Commissioner replied that austerity was unfortunately part of the picture now in this financial crisis. Governments and national institutions had to improvise and look for the best solutions. Some of them were not necessarily fair and he had no disagreement with the unions there. The unregulated financial system created the situation, he said, although there were clearly cycles in economics. The extent of the current recession however was clearly caused by the misallocation of resources by the financial sector.

Furthermore, he said, national situations were different. Greece had hidden the real size of the public debt and now serious questions were being raised about why the Greek economy was not functioning properly and why it was so lacking in transparency. Quite a few recommendations from the Commission to sort out taxation for example were very useful.

It was, he concluded, unfair to put all the responsibility for the austerity measure on the European Commission.

Gloria Mills urged the Commissioner to become the champion of the Tobin Tax and the Financial Transaction Tax in Europe.

Afterwards, the Commissioner visited the EU-OSHA stand on the Safe Maintenance campaign, of which he is a dedicated supporter. He officially launched the campaign over a year ago, presided over the Good Practice Awards ceremony in Budapest this year and has made regular public appearances with NAPO, the animated award-winning star of the campaign.

Tomorrow, there will be a debate in the ETUC congress on workplace health and safety.

Brenda O’Brien in Athens