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Social dialogue at is lowest : The Commission’s unbalanced response to the pandemic

This article is a snapshot of the Commission’s response – as the largest European Public Service employer –  to the Covid pandemic based on the author’s personal perspective as well as on Union Syndicale’s position on the issues raised in the article.

It covers the main issues arising from the Commission’s response but does not attempt to be exhaustive in every detail.

When discussing the Commission’s response to the Covid pandemic, the question that immediately comes to mind is: was the response adequate?

The answer to this question cannot be a simple yes or no. However, this article will attempt to illustrate that while Commission, as an employer, adequately tackled the health dimension of the crisis, it failed in providing a satisfactory response to other crisis-related issues affecting working conditions and staff rights. The reason for this failure has to do with the failure of social dialogue during this difficult period.

A health response to a health crisis

The Covid pandemic was an unprecedented health crisis, with tremendous impact on the economy, on society and of course on individuals.

The response to the health crisis demanded responses at many levels, and large organisations like the Commission were confronted with the need to play their part in protecting public health, protect the health of their employees, while continuing to deliver results, which the EU quite successfully did.

In providing and an internal response to the health challenge posed by Covid, the Commission, like other major EU institutions, was able to count on the support of its Medical Service, which literally worked day and night to do fulfil its duty. Of course, the EU institutions did not act on their own. They all followed the instructions from the health authorities of their hosting Member States, which were far from identical, notably at the beginning of the crisis. This resulted in different treatment being given to staff depending on their host Member State, which was, at times, a source of frustration for staff. The vast majority of us being expatriates, we had to endure particularly complex situations (due for example to restrictions to travel); this was notably the case for colleagues in Delegations.

Over time, however, measures adopted in various Member States did converge. For example, teleworking (I will come back to that later) became the norm wherever it was possible.

From the early days of the pandemic, there was a frantic race to find a vaccine for Covid-19. In record time, several types of vaccine became available and approved for use. Once again, Commission staff were in the hands of the host countries and their different approaches.

More worryingly, when vaccines arrived, divergences between institutions in Brussels also emerged. The Commission, the Council and the Parliament became accredited vaccination centres. The Commission soon decided to vaccinate staff (including staff from EEAS Headquarters as well as agencies and other bodies) but not staff family members or retired colleagues, relying on the host country for this.

The confusion around vaccination of family members and retired colleagues caused a significant amount of distress among staff, their family members as well as retired colleagues.

In Luxembourg and other sites, vaccination was fully in the hands of the national health services and not always stress-free.

Most worrying of all was the situation in Delegations. Many third countries were ill equipped for the stringent handling requirements of vaccination transportation and storage. Deficiencies in health systems’ capacity to organise and deliver vaccination was also a concern. Union Syndicale was the leading voice in calling repeatedly for adequate solutions for colleagues in Delegations.

After a difficult start, vaccination proceeded at full speed from early Spring 2021. Vaccination of family members, retired colleagues and vaccination in other sites as well as for Delegation staff were gradually resolved or are being resolved.

Throughout the process, Union Syndicale was the leading voice in asking about the impact of the pandemic and confinement on staff’s health, particularly mental health. According to DG HR the number of colleagues infected by Covid-19 remained low and casualties very low, though no precise statistics were provided. There were no precise statistics provided either, despite repeated requests from Union Syndicale, on the impact of the pandemic on colleagues’ mental health – DG HR indicated that although the absolute numbers were low, there was a significant increase in cases referred to psychological treatment when compared with previous years.

Notwithstanding certain shortcomings, since the outbreak of the pandemic DG HR did make a remarkable effort to keep staff and staff representatives informed of the pandemic situation and all the health measures adopted.

By and large, OIB put in place adequate measures to ensure safe access to and presence in buildings, for those who were not teleworking. The situation of frontline workers (those being regularly in close physical proximity of other people, like day care workers or drivers) was a constant source of concern. Union Syndicale was the unions’ leading voice vis-à-vis the Administration in asking that particular attention be given to those colleagues.

All in all, from a health stand point the Commission internal health response to the Covid pandemic has been, so far, adequate.

The Commission response on aspects affecting staff rights and working conditions

The pandemic brought with it generalised teleworking, which has lasted for well over a year now.

Limited teleworking had been in place for well over a decade in the Commission, thanks to no small extent to pressure from unions, as a measure for better work-life balance. When Covid-19 hit, the once reluctant Commission, like so many other organisations and businesses, was forced to introduce generalised teleworking, for what was initially expected to be a few months.

The immediate evidence that emerged was that, in teleworking mode, the institutions were capable of delivering results on every front, not least in priority areas related to the fight against the pandemic and the recovery from the economic crisis that resulted from it. As far as results goes, teleworking worked!

The picture was not, alas, 100% rosy.

Long-term teleworking presented issues such ergonomics, equipment and connection costs for teleworkers. Up until after the summer of 2020, the prospect was that staff would be physically back to the office in October of that year. However, the first signs that we were about to be hit by a second wave were clear in September and by October the prospects of a quick return had disappeared. In October 2020 Union Syndicale publicly asked that suitable equipment be provided to improve ergonomics at home where needed. Union Syndicale also demanded the allocation of a lump sum, inversely proportional to grade, to offset the additional costs generated by teleworking, notably connection costs.

In December 2020, DG HR finally took the decision to provide support to colleagues willing to acquire a chair and a PC screen. Nothing was done for those that had already equipped themselves (unless they had kept receipts) and there was no measure to offset the extra costs generated by teleworking for lower grades. This is still the case to this day. Union Syndicale keeps reminding the administration that colleagues, particularly those in the lower grades, still suffer from this.

Another issue that emerged in 2020 was the carryover, by 31 December 2020, of holiday beyond the 12 days automatically carried over (as provided for in Article 4 of Annex V to the Staff Regulations). Union Syndicale was the leading voice among unions asking for flexibility, because normal holiday planning had been in impossible in 2020, asking in particular for an extension of the cut-off date to 31 March 2021. Unlike other institutions, which applied different degrees of flexibility, the Commission took an unnecessarily restrictive approach that generated negative feedback from staff — and from managers, who had to implement it. It forced many colleagues to take unwanted leave or face the risk of losing the extra leave days that they had been unable to take due to the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, there was a growing number of requests from colleagues to telework from a place other than the place of employment, in most cases from the home country and for family reasons. Once more, EU institutions took different approaches on this matter, with the Commission being, again, the most restrictive of all. The Commission teleworking guidelines contained a couple of family-related exceptional cases allowing teleworking from abroad, rendered in many instances practically ineffective by the provision that they would only apply if travel restrictions persist, the interpretation given to “travel restrictions” being very rigid. Following months of pressure from unions and staff, the initial very restrictive approach was timidly amended twice to allow a small package of 10 days teleworking away from place of employment combined with 5 leave days, well short of staff  and unions’ expectations.

DG HR’s restrictive approach on issues about which staff felt quite strongly – financial support to teleworkers, the carryover of leave or teleworking from abroad – was in stark contrast with the totally careless manner in which a “new building policy” was introduced in the midst of the pandemic.

Soon after the pandemic broke out, OIB (following political instructions) came up with a “new building policy” based on the assumption that a large measure of teleworking would continue after the end of the pandemic, resulting in reduced building occupation. The pandemic was indeed proving that large scale teleworking could be a viable way to organise work. The problem was that the building policy was de facto anticipating and committing the institution to a new policy on working time and teleworking that was still to be developed.

The new buzzword for the administration became hot-desking. Overnight, even open space – which preserves personal space – appeared to have become a thing of the past. The new thing was the “first come, first served” office arrangement, whereby personal space was abolished and staff would take whatever space was available

upon arrival, without the slightest regard for safety, personal situations or even service requirements. All this was to be done in the absence of any technical frame of reference for such office arrangement.

The first moves resulting from this “new building policy” were presented as a pilot – though it concerned no less than 3 000 colleagues!

This “new building policy” and the manner in which it was presented were so shocking and lacking in common sense that not only unions complained about it. Thirteen Directors-General also felt compelled to co-sign a joint letter addressed to Director-General of DG HR and to the Director of OIB – probably a first in Commission history – complaining about such ill-conceived plans and asking for broad consultation and for the “new decision on working time and teleworking” to “be part of the buildings discussion”.

Directors-General were referring in their letter to a new decision on working time and teleworking that DG HR had been brooding over for months, and that was supposed to be the basis of new working arrangements including new rules for teleworking with obvious potential repercussions on building occupation. Union Syndicale had repeatedly been asking DG HR to put the draft on the table.

After a long wait, shortly before the summer break the draft decision on the implementation of working time and hybrid working was circulated to unions and formal consultation began. DG HR’s proposal fell well short of staff expectations in every respect. The flexibility that many have hoped the decision would bring about was nowhere to be seen. On the contrary, the draft gives line managers seemingly boundless responsibility to decide every aspect of staff working time (a responsibility that managers themselves were certainly not asking for), dangerously mixes leave and teleworking, does not guarantee the right to disconnect and is, again, excessively restrictive with the possibility  of teleworking from a place other than the place of employment.

Of course, this draft decision will be subject to negotiation, the outcome of which it is too early to predict.

The point is that the draft proposal like all the other measures described above point in one single direction: the Commission’s responses to covid-related issues affecting staff rights and working conditions were blatantly inadequate or excessively restrictive.

The key question is then: why was this so?

Social dialogue at its lowest ebb

As we explained above, DG HR did an adequate job in responding to the health dimension of the Covid crisis. Throughout the pandemic, DG HR did make an effort to keep staff informed about measures taken. The problem was that DG HR – and its political masters – seemed to satisfy itself with information – a one way street – and totally neglected the social dialogue that would have been necessary for the other measures described in this article. One flagrant example, among others, is the “new building policy” that OIB pulled out of its hat, making a mockery of existing rules and statutory bodies. It says something that thirteen Directors-General had to write to DG HR and OIB to complain about it.

It is sad to conclude that, in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, social dialogue has reached the lowest ebb that experienced staff representatives can remember.

There is, however, a way forward and this is for DG HR to listen to the voices of staff representatives, recognise the sad state social dialogue is in, and immediately reverse course.

Augusto Gonzalez

Augusto González joined the European Commission in 1989 and has worked in various domains, including education, human resources, financial management, research and space. He held management positions in different Directorates-General of the Commission and is currently Adviser for Innovation in the DG DEFIS. He joined Union Syndicale in July 1993. He is currently member of USB Executive Committee, elected member and Vice-President of the Brussels Local Staff Committee, and First Vice-President of the Central Staff Committee.

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