Implementation of social rights in the Council of Europe member States
Ready for future challenges - Reinforcing the Council of Europe
Report by the Secretary General for the Ministerial Session in Helsinki, 16-17 May 2019
In the context of his last Report “Ready for future challenges – reinforcing the Council of Europe”, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, says that the enforcement of social rights to tackle extremes of poverty and inequality is required more than ever. Moreover, the Council of Europe has been characterised by some as the “conscience” of Europe. An important part of that “conscience” is represented by the European Social Charter which, in turn, has been called the Social Constitution of Europe.
Together with the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter embodies the best of the European democratic and social model. It outlines the fundamental rights required to ensure human dignity: the right to education, to health care, to housing, to fair remuneration, social security, and social assistance. This is a means to ensure social justice, consolidate inclusive societies and strengthen democratic security in our member states.
Besides, the Secretary General’s Report states that the process of mutual harmonisation with the European Union’s standards should be brought forward. It is important to ensure synergy between the European Social Charter mechanism and EU standards and to avoid conflicts between different instruments. The European Social Charter should be central to the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights and new ways to promote this should be explored.
The Secretary General also stresses that, in many countries, public services were deeply affected over the last decade by cuts in public funding, with a particular impact on health and social protection. “The negative impact of these measures has been heaviest on the most vulnerable persons and groups, such as the poor, the elderly, the sick, children, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees. Those coming from disadvantaged neighbourhoods have suffered most from the resulting poverty and social exclusion. Since 2009, the Council of Europe has emphasised that the economic crisis and the austerity measures should not result in the deterioration of protection for social rights.”
The European Committee of Social Rights has insisted over the past years through its monitoring procedure that austerity measures have exacerbated the already severe human consequences of the economic crisis marked by record levels of unemployment, discrimination, social exclusion and poverty, including child deprivation. The subsequent destruction of jobs and increased duration of joblessness are making unemployment stay stubbornly high, well after the economy has begun to recover. Several collective complaints against Greece relating to the impact of austerity measures on social rights were brought before the Committee. The latter, having regard to the context of economic crises, recalls that ensuring the effective enjoyment of equal, inalienable and universal human rights cannot be subordinated to changes in the political, economic or fiscal environment. In the General introduction to Conclusions XIX-2 from 2009, the Committee has stated that "the economic crisis should not have as a consequence the reduction of the protection of the rights recognised by the Charter. Hence, the governments are bound to take all necessary steps to ensure that the rights of the Charter are effectively guaranteed at a period of time when beneficiaries need the protection most." The Committee subsequently reiterated this analysis and stated that "doing away with such guarantees would not only force employees to shoulder an excessively large share of the consequences of the crisis but also accept pro-cyclical effects liable to make the crisis worse and to increase the burden on welfare systems […].” (GENOP-DEI and ADEDY v. Greece, Complaint No. 65/2011, op.cit., §18).
In addition, in its decision on the merits of 23 March 2017 in Complaint No. 111/2014 Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) v. Greece, the Committee held that there was a violation of several articles of the 1961 Charter on the grounds, among others, that fair remuneration was not guaranteed and the reduction of the minimum wage for workers under 25 years was excessive and constituted discrimination on grounds of age, as well as that the minimum wage of young workers aged 15 to 18 years was not fair.