Press Releases Speech by President von der Leyen at the 15th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation

Speech by President von der Leyen at the 15th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation

Monsieur le Président, Laurent Berger,

General Secretary, dear Esther Lynch,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear delegates of the national federations,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you in Berlin and to celebrate your 50th anniversary – half a century now of ETUC. And ETUC has contributed tirelessly during this half of a century to making Europe a better place. You are the ones who give workers a voice. You are the ones who have mobilised year after year – and when you walk up the stairs, you can see the different steps of this journey – for fair salaries and good jobs. You have championed the campaigns for gender equality and equal pay. If Europe has the highest labour standards in the world today, it is also because of your commitment. So, today, I do not only want to congratulate you, but I also want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, and not only all of you here in the room but the many thousand trade unionists who are working day after day on the ground – many thanks for what you have done.

Where are we today? We have now since 30 years our Single Market. But we have a very special Single Market. It is not simply a market, it is a social market economy. And that makes a big difference. It never had the sole goal of market efficiency and market liberalisation. To the contrary, our social market economy functions because there is the constant dialogue between the trade unions, the employer associations and the governments. So this is a model that has the well-known collective bargaining at its core. And that is not a given, we should always keep that in mind.

We know that in some parts of the world, the goal of the entire economy is only to maximise profit – pure capitalism. Here in Europe, workers and society must also reap the benefits. We have a clear agreement. It is absolutely okay to make profit, but everyone has to get his or her fair share. But we also know that there are other parts in the world where it is the state or the government or, even worse, a party that sets the main economic course. And that party strives for total control over businesses and people. And again, we are different here in the European Union. Yes, governments set the legal framework under democratic control, but social partners ensure that these rules are then tailored and matching to companies’ and workers’ needs.

The European social market economy is of course about business and opportunities. But it is a model that at the same time cares about people, it cares about communities. It is about each and every one of us, and about the society as a whole. So in sum, putting people first is a key factor for the European social market economy’s success. This human-centred approach must also be our compass in a changing world.

We are not only faced with a more competitive global environment but also with global warming, smarter technologies and ageing societies, just to name a few. And we know that this European success in this new world is not granted. But I think we have a good starting position, thanks to the strong standing of our companies, our unique Single Market, the innovative power of our research and science community and the outstanding skills of our workforce. So I believe there are huge opportunities that we have to grab.

Take the clean and the digital economy. It is already creating countless jobs. For example, if you look at the European battery industry, it will need 800,000 additional skilled workers in just the next two years. Or look at the solar industry. It will need one million additional good jobs, skilled workers by 2030 – this is twice as many as we have today.

At the same time, we should be very clear that we face many challenges: growing automation; the lack of adequate skills for the new tasks of tomorrow; a global subsidies race; and, of course, new forms of work for which the old rules simply do not fit. So our social market economy must keep pace with this changing world. That is where we need you. We need you because, as trade unions, you know the workers’ worries. You know where our rules are no longer fit for purpose and need an update. You know the proven system of collective bargaining between strong trade unions and employers, and that is Europe’s competitive edge in times of change. Because it helps us to balance both: the emerging opportunities and the new risks;  the economic success, but the success for people. And at the centre of this whole action has to be the individual. Or to put it in your words: We are in this together, but we are in this ‘together, for a fair deal for workers.’ That must be the goal.

Allow me to take a few examples. First of all, I think everyone must get a fair chance to enter the labour market. We have an unemployment rate of 6%. That is great, that is a huge success. That is the lowest level on record. We have never recorded a month’s unemployment rate like this one.  But at the same time, we have a youth unemployment rate of 14%. This cannot be. We always say that young people are our future. So if these young people want to enter the labour market and they have no chance – 14% unemployment –, well, let us make sure that their future can begin right away by giving them a chance to enter the labour market. That is why we have created the Youth Guarantee: Every young European has to get a job offer, every young European has to get at least a training opportunity. We are complaining about lack of skilled personnel? Well, let us just invest adequately in this huge potential that is out there. Young people are our future, let us invest in them.

My second example: Too many women are forced out of employment when they choose to have a child. This is just not right. These women are taking on responsibility and they want to work to earn the income for their family. This is the best that can happen to our society. These are young people who want to take on responsibility – the economy needs their skills – and we are making their life difficult? What is that? That is why we have introduced the Child Guarantee. We want that all families can afford childcare and early education for their kids. That is empowering parents, it is education for children, and it is skills for our economy. This is what the Child Guarantee is all about and let us make it real on the ground. This is important.

Third point: Fairness is a cornerstone of our social market economy. There should be no such thing as working poverty. Everyone who works full time should be able to earn a living. I think this is a basic principle of our social market economy. Therefore, my friends, I am so glad that we took the historic step to pass the European Directive on minimum wages. It is high time that work pays. And actually, work must pay for everyone: for men and women alike. There is not a single argument why – for the same type of work – a woman should get paid less than a man. Not a single argument is out there. So this is why we now have the Directive on pay transparency. It is a basic principle of equality, it is finally cast into law. Equal work deserves equal pay.

My fourth point: During COVID-19, when our streets became empty, our economies came to a halt and our lives were put on hold: That is when we together created the first-ever European short-time work scheme. I know that this is a chewing gum of a word but the abbreviation says it all, it is SURE. SURE saved millions of European jobs in all parts of our Union. And it gave our companies a head start at the end of the pandemic when the economy picked up again, because those companies had not laid off their workers but kept the expertise on the job. That is the social market economy at its best. In each and everyone of these achievements I was just describing, ETUC has played a major role. I hope you are as proud of these achievements as I am.

Our work is far from over. In a fast-changing world, we must continue to give protection while rewarding performance. This work is particularly challenging in new sectors where technology is radically changing the rules of the game. Just think about the massive leaps in artificial intelligence that we have seen in the past year alone. Of course, AI can massively improve the productivity of companies across the board. But we have also seen companies using AI to ‘hire and fire’ their employees. Roughly one quarter – 25% – of European companies are planning to use AI tools to support their recruitment processes, and the same tools can also be used for automated dismissals. Every algorithm is designed by a programmer. This person has a background and biases. So none of the algorithms is free of biases. Therefore, we should be very clear: No one should be fired because of an algorithm. This cannot be. We need rules. Therefore, the answer to the challenges that AI raises is first of all a principle. This principle is called ‘human in control’. That must be our underlying principle for everything.

In our proposal on platform work, we have put forward a new set of rules on the use of automated systems for the management of platform workers. This means that automated decisions must be checked by humans. This is a good first step. But algorithms increasingly shape work beyond labour platforms. So, ladies and gentlemen, we are keeping a very close eye on the potential need to regulate the use of algorithms in the wider world of work. With the Artificial Intelligence Act, for example, we have set clear rules for high-risk applications of AI so that companies and programmers can keep advancing and improving but citizens and their rights are always protected. This is the minimum we have to do.

Finally, all workers deserve the chance to grow and to progress during their career. We need to create better conditions for lifelong learning. Trade unions have been leading the way for years on this topic – thank you very much for that. You struck deals with coal mining businesses to retrain workers when a mine closes – you have shown that it is possible. You developed solutions with energy companies to train their workers on new energy sources and energy efficiency – it is possible. As you said, Esther, skills must be treated not as a cost but as an asset. That is why we have set, for the first time, a European target on skills. By 2030, we want to have at least 60% of all adults in training every year. We made 2023 the Year of Skills, and we have launched the Pact for Skills. We are matching companies’ needs with the right training for workers to help millions of Europeans to upskill and reskill. It was Jacques Delors who spoke already in the 1980s of the right to lifelong training. So it is by now high time that we make it happen.

Dear friends,

The basic promise of the social market economy is prosperity while protecting and empowering workers. It is a promise that our parents and grandparents built for us. And I want this promise to be true today for all Europeans, for our children and for our grandchildren. It must be true for the young women and men who want to have children and keep advancing in their career. It must be true for those who have lost their job half-way through their career and deserve a new opportunity. It must be true for those who have worked for decades and now wish to retire in dignity. This is the absolute must, as a result of the social market economy. It is the promise of a fair deal between workers and employers, the core principle of our social market economy. No matter what challenge awaits us, no matter how fast the world keeps changing around us, we can and we have to stay true to the European promise: Put people first.

Thank you for 50 long years of amazing work, hard work. And let me wish you all the best for at least another 50 years in the social market economy in Europe.

Thank you very much. All the best.

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