Improving quality in work: a review of recent progress

Improving quality in work: a review of recent progress

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about Improving quality in work: a review of recent progress


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Employment and social policy > Community employment policies

Improving quality in work: a review of recent progress (November 2003)

Document or Iniciative

Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions of 26 November 2003: Improving quality in work: a review of recent progress [COM(2003) 728 final – Not published in the Official Journal].


Quality in work is one of the key objectives both of the Guidelines 2003-2005 and those proposed by the Commission for the period 2005-2008. There is a positive correlation between quality and progress towards full employment and stronger growth as highlighted in the Lisbon strategy revised in 2005.

Although quality in work in Europe has improved, this communication states that it is not enough. The Commission proposes investing more in this area. The examples show that Member States which are more concerned with quality in work perform better as regards employment and productivity.

According to the communication, the European labour force is increasingly well trained and competent. Firms are investing more in training. Employment rates are improving and the gender gap in employment and unemployment is narrowing. There are fewer occupational accidents, although their frequency in certain sectors remains considerable.

However, the results obtained are highly unequal. The overall trends conceal major differences between Member States. Besides, certain groups such as older workers, young people, the disabled and third country nationals have particular difficulties in finding a quality job with reasonable career prospects. Gender pay gaps remain considerable. Childcare services and nursing care are inadequate.

The ten following criteria and their application to the notion of quality of work, are analysed:

  • Intrinsic job quality: the possibility to make career progress (in terms of pay and status) is essential to remain at work in the labour market. In 2000, high degrees of dissatisfaction were observed in Spain, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom. Austria, Denmark, France, Ireland and the Netherlands had a satisfaction rate of 90%. To reduce the number of working poor and unemployment traps, Member States have above all reduced social security contributions or adopted in-work benefit schemes. The adoption of new flexible forms of work organisation giving workers room for autonomy and a perspective for their further career are crucial elements in this respect.
  • Skills, lifelong learning and career development: here it is important to increase the investment in human resources both on the part of public authorities as well as individuals and enterprises. This objective requires the creation of incentives to convince the stakeholders of the need for training. The report also stresses the importance of improving quality and efficiency with a view to promoting productivity, competitiveness and active ageing. Particular attention should be paid to older workers and the low skilled and to offering them basic skills in information and communications technology (ICT). More women participate in training than men at European level and in most of the Member States.
  • Gender equality: this dimension is closely linked to those concerning training, flexibility and work-life balance. Member States’ efforts to reduce gender employment and unemployment gaps vary from training (Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), review of tax, benefit and pensions systems and incentives for enterprises (Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain and France), encouraging entrepreneurship (Greece, Sweden and Luxembourg) and better care services for children and other dependants (Ireland, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom).
  • Health and Safety at Work: The high absenteeism due to accidents at work and work-related illnesses and occupational diseases as well as the high number of permanent disabilities from occupational origin are some illustration of the most visible consequences that poor health and safety at work can have on the labour market. In the European Union, in the year 2000, a total of 158 million days’ work was lost, corresponding to an average of 20 days per accident. Around 350.000 workers were obliged to change their job as a consequence of an accident. Nearly 300.000 workers have various degrees of permanent disabilities and 15.000 are entirely excluded from the labour market. The new Community strategy on health and safety at work focuses on the need to consolidate a culture of risk prevention, to combine a variety of policy instruments (legislation, social dialogue, progressive measures and best practices, corporate social responsibility and economic incentives) and to develop partnerships between all the actors involved.
  • Flexibility and security at work: this indicator includes flexibility with regard notably to work organisation, working time, contractual arrangements and national or geographical mobility. At the same time quality requires adequate security for the workers to ensure sustainable integration and progress on the labour market, and to foster a wider acceptance of change. There is a role both for public authorities to encourage part-time work where it is under-developed, in particular through changes in the legislation, and for social partners to promote the quality of part-time jobs through collective agreements. It is also necessary to avoid the emergence of a two-tier labour market consisting on the one hand of workers with a high level of protection and, on the other hand, of marginal workers.
  • Inclusion and access to the labour market: major progress has been achieved in activation and prevention policies that enable citizens to access the labour market and remain in employment. It is a matter of giving a new start to inactive persons and the unemployed in the form of training, retraining, work practice, a job, or other employment measure. Other labour market tools to promote inclusion include Making work pay policies, life-long learning and the positive management of company restructuring. Facilitating participation in employment for people who are distant from the labour market is also a major plank of the EU Inclusion Strategy, which covers many other policy fields such as housing, health care, and social protection systems. The results in the framework of this agenda are included in the Joint Report on Social Inclusion 2003.
  • Work organisation and work-life balance: Flexible work arrangements and adequate care services for children and other dependants are essential to ensure the full participation of women and men on the labour market. Some efforts to reconcile work and family life have been implemented in most Member States. They include: more flexible work and working-time organisation (Germany, Belgium and France); part-time work facilities (Sweden, Luxembourg and Ireland); development of parental leave (Denmark, France, UK, Spain and the Netherlands); new measures, quantitative targets and deadlines on childcare provision (Belgium, France, UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Sweden). However, childcare provision remains difficult and the Commission recommends better use of ICT in order to allow teleworking.
  • Social dialogue and worker involvement: progress has been made as regards lifelong learning collective agreements (Belgium, Finland, Germany, Italy and Portugal), equal opportunities aiming at reducing gender pay inequalities (Belgium, Finland, Netherlands and Ireland), at combating race discrimination (France, Denmark and Ireland), at increasing employment of disabled persons (Belgium Italy and Ireland) and at preventing age discrimination (Demark and Austria); health and safety at work collective agreements on the prevention and treatment of stress (Belgium), on well-being and psychological work environment (Denmark) and against the excessive workload (the Netherlands); flexibility and work-life balance collective agreements on parental leave (Sweden), on family leave and family-linked working time patterns (Belgium, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands), on sabbaticals (Finland), on childcare arrangements (Greece, Ireland and the Netherlands), on flexitime and teleworking (Italy, Austria, and Denmark) and on temporary agency workers (Italy and Germany).
  • Diversity and non-discrimination: it is mainly a matter of adopting comprehensive national strategies to promote integration in the employment market of disadvantaged groups such as older workers, third country nationals and people with disabilities. Besides the incentives addressed to employers to recruit older workers and the reform of the retirement and pre-retirement systems, the Commission proposes the implementation of life-long learning strategies and adapting working conditions. For migrant populations it is important to improve recognition of diplomas and to ensure proper assessment of migrants’ skills. As regards policy to encourage the activity of disabled people it is a matter of implementing effective disability mainstreaming in their national employment policy.
  • Overall work performance: EU productivity growth compared to the US has been disappointing in particular in ICT using services, which alone represent 21% of total employment. Productivity growth per person employed, at about 2% in the 1980s and the second half of the 1990s, fell to 1% in the 1996-2002 period and remains weak. Investment in human capital and training can contribute to reversing this slowdown. Life-long learning for all becomes a central element of a strategy for productivity growth. The pervasiveness of knowledge is crucial to enhance and diffuse throughout the whole economy the use of new technologies and to prevent segmentation of the labour market between workers with different types of education. However, there is a need to be active in all areas which contribute to raising productivity: social dialogue and work relationships; flexibility and adaptation to new forms of work organisation; balancing flexibility and security; career prospects for employees; health and safety at work.

The annex to this communication contains a list of key indicators and context indicators recommended by the Council of the European Union and quantitative data relating to each Member State.

Related Acts

Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Employment and Social Policies: a framework for investing in quality [COM(2001) 313 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
Since the Lisbon European Council the Commission has focused on continuous modernisation of the European social model and investment in human capital. The promotion of quality as the driving force for a thriving economy facilitates improving the inter-relationship between economic and social policies. The annex to this communication notably contains graphs explaining the importance of investment in quality for the labour market and the improvement of social policies.

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