Green politics and employment law
30 October 2019
This study of the impact of Green politics on global employment law is based on a survey of 13 jurisdictions. It was produced in collaboration with Ius Laboris member firms in those countries.
We live in turbulent political times, with the old political order being overturned and new brands of politics gaining traction in many parts of the world. In our previous article on the rise of populism and its potential impact on employment law[i], we discussed the global breakdown of centre-left and centre-right political dominance and the advent of more complicated and fragmented politics involving the emergence of (predominantly right-wing) populist parties and movements.
At the same time, this fragmentation is heralding the rise of Green political parties in many countries. In this second article, we examine their growing influence and the potential impact this might have on employment laws around the world. Is the climate becoming ripe for Green ideals to have a meaningful impact on the world of work?
The rise of Green politics
The European Parliament (“EP”) elections in May 2109 highlighted the advance of Green politics in Western Europe. Green parties secured more than 10% of the vote[ii] in ten countries[iii] (and as high as 20% in Germany). In all but one of those countries[iv], this vote marked a significant rise in support from the previous EP elections in 2014. In Germany and Finland, the Green Party came second in the polls.
The increasingly splintered nature of domestic politics often results in coalition governments, in which a Green party with 10% to 20% of the vote can expect to play a significant role[v]. While perhaps the most obvious coalition partners for Greens would be left-wing socialist parties, in practice they have a range of political bedfellows[vi].
In the EP, the Green Parties have 62 MEPs and, in alliance with the regional parties within the European Free Alliance (“EFA”), represent the Parliament’s fourth largest group. Outside the European Union, in Iceland, the Left-Green Movement gained 17% of the vote and was the second highest party in that country’s 2017 elections. It now forms the lead party in the coalition governing Iceland and Katrin Jakobsdottir, a member of the Movement, is the country’s prime minister. In Switzerland, the two Green parties took more than 20% of the vote in the recent 2019 parliamentary election.
Beyond Europe, Green parties have been advancing in countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the October 2019 election in Canada, the Green Party gained about 6.5% of the national vote and won an extra seat in parliament[vii], and in New Zealand Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party has relied in part on the Green Party in a confidence-and-supply arrangement to remain in power since the 2017 general election. In Australia, the Greens maintained 10% of the primary vote at the general election earlier this year and, in an attempt to capture part of the growing Greens vote (particularly in metropolitan areas), the centre-left Australian Labour Party campaigned (unsuccessfully) on a number of traditionally Green policy positions[viii].
The Green vote tends to be highest amongst the younger voters. For example, a third of Germans below the age of 30 voted for the Green Party in the last EP elections - way ahead of any other party there. It is not yet clear how far the disproportionate support for Green parties among today’s younger voters will be sustained as they grow older, or whether they will change their allegiances over time.
Escalating concerns about the global climate crisis provide another obvious reason to predict an increasing influence of Green politics. The extent to which this will result the continuing rise of Green parties, as opposed to the more mainstream political parties embracing a greener political agenda, remains to be seen.
One can further envisage a trend, at some point, towards Green politics as part of a backlash against the current explosion of populism[ix]. While politics a decade on may well look very different from today, it would be no great surprise to witness the popularity of Green parties increasing further over the next ten years. The impact on employment law could be seismic.
In order to assess trends across countries with popular Green parties, we canvassed Ius Laboris[x] law firms in ten EU member states which saw Greens gain at least 10% of the vote at the last EP elections, plus the three Commonwealth countries already mentioned (Canada, Australia and New Zealand).
Green parties and employment law
Most of the attention given to Green parties inevitably concentrates on their environmental and climate-related priorities, but they generally advocate reform in other areas, including workplace rights. In the years ahead, this could be a catalyst for some significant changes in employment regulation and the balance of power between employers, trade unions and workers.
We should acknowledge that a Green party in power with a majority, and an unfettered ability to introduce its own agenda, is probably some way off – and any coalition of which a Green party was a member would most likely water down the latter’s most radical ideas. It is instructive, nonetheless, to review the Green agenda for the workplace at an EU and domestic level in countries with popular Green parties.
The EU programme
Minimum employment law standards are set in many areas at an EU level for member states. Green parties can influence employment laws throughout the EU either at this supra-national level, or by promoting higher levels of protection than required by EU law at a local level.
The programme for reform of EU employment law promoted by the Green/EFA group in the EP includes[xi]:
- Promoting pay transparency and eradicating the gender pay gap.
- Ensuring that all work-life balance policies focus on encouraging men to take more responsibilities for care-giving.
- Adopting the Women on Boards Directive to set a minimum quota of 40% women on private and public company boards.
European Greens claim to have been the driving force behind the new EU Whistleblowing Directive[xii], in addition to other recent achievements including pushing for the (soon to be published) Work-life Balance Directive[xiii]. They have also been actively pushing for increased information, consultation and participation of workers in the process of cross-border company reorganisations[xiv].
Other Green priorities[xv] at an EU level include:
- Facilitating the reduction and redistribution of working hours, for instance when parents return to work from parental leave.
- Securing paid sick leave for workers.
- Protecting self-employed people and workers in the gig and platform economy.
- Supporting the right of workers to organise in trade unions as well as collective bargaining, social dialogue and worker participation.
- Addressing psychosocial health risks more effectively in EU legislation.
More radically, the French-speaking Belgian Green party, Ecolo, would like to see an EU directive introduced to set a “decent” minimum wage across the EU in order to undercut competition on the basis of labour costs between member states.
Domestic Green parties often have a more ambitious agenda than those pursued by the European Greens at EU level. In some countries, the Green agenda is relatively vague, setting out only general principles, whereas in others more detailed policies are articulated - some of which are likely to surprise many employers.
Green priorities cover consistent themes relating to: gender equality; family-friendly laws; controlling working hours; protection for “gig” economy and other non-standard workers; regulating pay; promoting the role of the trade unions and collective bargaining; and improving health and safety, including stress and mental health. These are covered in more detail below. In addition, the Green agenda in some jurisdictions includes other initiatives such as the adoption of International Labour Organisation (“ILO”) standards[xvi], increased workplace democracy, and minimum levels of sick pay.
1. Gender equality
Improving gender equality is a key imperative across most Green parties, with a consistent focus on tackling unequal pay. The principle of equal pay for equal work has been enshrined in EU law for decades, but it remains a major demand in many countries outside Europe[xvii].
Within the EU (and also in New Zealand) the focus is more on addressing the gender pay gap, with Green party in most of the surveyed countries including steps to address this on their agenda[xviii]. In Finland, the Green League suggests increasing available information about pay to make the gender pay gap more visible. Europe Écologie Les Verts in France support shaming poor employers with a public list, and reinforcing rules concerning access to public-sector contracts.
The New Zealand Green Party similarly advocates for increasing available pay information, for example by implementing a legislative mechanism requiring employers to undertake pay audits and pay/employment equity reporting. It is also pushing for a Pay and Employment Equity Commission to collate, analyse and report on pay equity and the gender/ethnicity pay gaps.
In addition, the Green parties in several jurisdictions match the EU-wide green agenda (see above) by proposing quotas for female directors on company boards[xix].
2. Family-friendly laws
Enhancing family rights is a priority for Green parties in almost all countries surveyed[xx]. The right to request flexible working, a feature of British employment law for over sixteen years and Australian law for ten years, has now been picked up by the Greens in New Zealand, where the Green Party wishes to widen the right to include all employees (not just those with dependants), and to introduce a negotiation-type framework in which the employer is bound to consider a flexible working request in good faith.
Most of the Green parties in the EU countries surveyed included additional family-friendly laws among their proposals. Extending paid parental leave is a particular focus, with Greens in Denmark, France and the UK specifically proposing an extension of paid parental leave to 22 weeks to be shared between parents[xxi]. In Ireland, the Green Party advocates for extending paid maternity and paternity leave to one year, and also for one year’s paid parental leave (with provision for six months of this paid leave to be shared between parents as they see fit).
Finnish Greens contend for a 6+6+6 model, with both parents being entitled to six months parental leave with a further six months to be divided freely between the parents. Proposals in France go further, including converting parental leave into a three-year time credit paid at 80% up to a child’s 18th birthday and equally shared between both parents.
In other some other countries, the focus is more on the father with, by way of example, the Flemish Groen party in Belgium lobbying for a mandatory 15 days of leave for fathers at childbirth.
The UK’s Green Party wants government-funded maternity and paternity pay to be extended to the self-employed and is pressing for paid time off for mothers to nurse babies. The latter right is also a policy of the New Zealand Greens, alongside: increasing sick leave to ten days per annum; introducing a separate entitlement of ten days to care for sick dependants; and increasing bereavement leave entitlement to five days for each bereavement an employee suffers.
3. Working hours
Reducing the time spent at work is another popular theme within the Green movement. Restrictions on working time have been in force at an EU level for over 20 years[xxii], with a 48-hour limit on the working week[xxiii]. Some countries have lower standard weekly working hours, such as the 35-hour week in France[xxiv]. Some Green parties, however, look to reduce the working week even further.
Belgium is an example of a country with high levels of unemployment, where the Ecolo party trumpets “Work for all, better work and better lives”, setting out the need to cut the working week to reduce unemployment. Working towards a 35-hour working week (or less) is a demand of the Greens in Canada and New Zealand as well as - from the EU members surveyed - Austria, France[xxv] and Germany.
The Flemish Groen party in Belgium goes further than any set limit on the working week by advocating for a right for all workers to determine their own weekly working hours, whereas their French-speaking compatriots in Ecolo urge a move from a five-day to four-day working week [xxvi] (without any consequential cut in salary[xxvii]).
In the UK, Greens want to extend the 28 days’ paid holiday[xxviii] for full-time workers currently prescribed under EU law to 36 days’ paid annual leave entitlement.
4. Enhanced rights for non-standard workers
Recent decades have seen non-standard working arrangement flourish globally. Permanent full-time employment has ceased to represent the norm, often being replaced by agency work, self-employment, part-time and temporary work, and more recently the growth of people working in the platform or gig economy. Employment laws ill-equipped for such a variety of arrangements have struggled to keep pace and, in many countries, aligning the law with these changes has become an issue.
Greens in all three Commonwealth countries and most of the surveyed EU countries[xxix] support enhancing rights for these non-standard workers and, in some cases, reducing their use. The German Greens (Grüne) specifically propose taking steps to reduce the use of non-standard arrangements such as agency workers and temporary contracts. Groen in Belgium supports all workers gradually moving to a single employee status, while Ecolo sets out more aspirational objectives in promoting adequate employment rights and a decent minimum level of pay for “platform” workers. Australian Greens look to extend minimum pay standards to all employees and workers.
In Denmark, where pay and employment terms are largely settled through industry-wide collective bargaining agreements, the Danish Greens (Socialistisk Folkeparti) have made extending these agreements to non-standard workers a priority. The Irish Greens, too, focus on promoting unions for such workers.
The UK Greens include proposals to require employers to justify casual or short-term work and, reflecting some of the popular concerns in this country, want also to extend employment rights to interns and trainees and regulate zero-hours contracts.
5. Minimum pay and wage regulation
As well as working less, Greens invariably want workers paid fairly (particularly those paid lowest). In the Commonwealth countries, Green parties all advocate higher minimum wage levels[xxx], as do the Greens in Austria, Belgium[xxxi], France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In these countries specific increases are advanced, whereas the UK Green Party’s policy is vaguer and would involve setting minimum pay at a “level to combat social and economic injustice”.
A common theme of Green minimum pay policies is not only increasing levels but also extending the scope to categories of workers not covered[xxxii]. This ties into the drive to extend employment rights generally to non-standard workers, explored above. The Irish Greens want to abolish unpaid internships and also set a minimum wage payment for internships in all for-profit organisations. In New Zealand, proposals include eliminating separate youth and trainee minimum wage rates and applying the adult rate to all employees.
The Green approach to pay often extends beyond reinforcing minimum pay laws. In Finland, France and Germany, for example, Greens point to increasing pay transparency (although without providing any specifics). The Groen party in Belgium also promotes pay transparency rules, including banning anyone in public service from earning more than the prime minister and setting (unspecified) restrictions on pay spans.
British Greens have more detailed ideas including proposals about maximum pay being set at the level of ten times that of the lowest paid worker, with bonuses being limited to the lowest-paid worker’s annual pay. In France, the Greens proposed that maximum pay be limited to 20 times that of the median worker.
Though not strictly speaking an employment law, Green parties in many countries are enthusiastic about introducing (or at least investigating) a “universal basic income”, provided to all by the State irrespective of any income from work.
6. Trade union rights and collective bargaining
Central to the Green agenda across all countries surveyed is an increased role for trade unions and collective negotiations in industrial relations. Extended collective bargaining rights are part of this theme in many countries[xxxiii], particularly extending such rights to non-standard employees (see above).
The New Zealand Greens would go as far as extending collective bargaining rights to independent contractors. They also support the right of unionised workers to prevent freeloading by non-union workers.
The UK Green Party wants to extend trade union rights to tackle perceived shortcomings in domestic law, including conferring a right to take industrial action without threat of dismissal for breach of contract and the extending trade union recognition.
7. Health and safety
Addressing health and safety concerns is another common feature of Green policy[xxxiv]. Wellbeing at work is set out, for example, as the primary focus of Groen in Belgium. In many cases, the focus is on mental health and “burn out”[xxxv]. In addition to reducing working hours (see above), another example of tacking this issue comes from Luxembourg where we see a proposed right to disconnect and not be available to answer work-related emails or other messages.
In Australia, the Greens want to confer on unions an ‘unhindered’ right to inspect workplaces for health and safety breaches, consult with workers and undertake organising activities. Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, we see a plan for a portion of workplace safety fines to be paid to injured workers.
8. Other rights
Greens in certain jurisdictions include policies which seem to go far further than elsewhere or which are not picked up in other countries. As mentioned above, enhancing paid sick leave, adopting ILO labour standards and increasing workplace democracy are examples found in more than one country[xxxvi].
The three Commonwealth countries include proposals which will seem uncontroversial to anyone familiar with European employment laws, such as the principle of equal pay for work of equal value mentioned above. The New Zealand Green Party, for example, highlights extending the right to transfer where a job is outsourced and rights of agency workers to the wages and employment terms of the host employer - rights familiar to those brought up with EU-derived employment protection laws.
The UK’s Green Party goes somewhat further than its equivalents in most other Green countries[xxxvii]. Its numerous proposals include: extending employment protection rights to those challenging refusals to hire, promote or offer pay rises[xxxviii] ; a power for employment tribunals to award pay rises or promotions as well as reinstatement; a right to remain in employment pending the outcome of any challenge to the fairness of the dismissal; anonymisation of CVs during recruitment; a requirement to prove redundancies are unavoidable or in the public interest; statutory time off for voluntary work, education or public service; and a legal right for workers to buy out companies and convert them to co-operatives.
UK Greens also propose an obligation for producers and manufacturers selling goods in the country to ensure that workers overseas are not subjected to lower working standards than in the UK (in relation to working hours, child labour, health and safely, discrimination and victimisation), and paid the living wage of country in which they work. Finnish and French Greens advocate something similar[xxxix].
Green policy platforms in some countries include proposals unique to the individual circumstances of that nation[xl]. Others propound rules which seem to have little to do with local circumstances, but which have not so far been prioritised by Green parties in other countries. For example, the Irish Greens proposes banning non-competition restrictive covenants and the Finnish Greens want to promote work-related immigration by speeding up the process for obtaining work permits and recognising more qualifications from other countries[xli]. In Luxembourg, there is a specific proposal to enhance controls on workplace monitoring.
Giving Green parties a greater say in the development of employment laws would result in a major shift in workplace rights in many jurisdictions, with the balance moving sharply to increased rights for workers and an increased role for trade unions.
There is a surprising degree of similarity in the approach of Green parties internationally. Across the board, we could expect to see: an extension of employment rights to non-standard workers; an enhancement of family-friendly laws; an increased focus of tacking gender inequality; reduced working hours; and a hike in minimum wage levels. In some countries, we would see some particularly radical reforms.
Assuming the fragmentation of politics that we are currently witnessing across the globe continues, with Green politics becoming ever more popular, it is likely that Green party priorities - including in the area of employment rights – will becoming increasingly relevant and important. The spotlight will fall on many of these before long and it will be interesting to see them being scrutinised and debated more intensely.
With thanks to Ius Laboris colleagues: Andy Lynch and John Tuck, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Australia; Birgit Vogt-Majerek, Shima Mayer Starlinger, Austria; Jan Van Gysegem, Claeys & Engels, Belgium; Greg McGinnis, Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark, Canada; Søren Kristophersen, Norrbom Vinding, Denmark; Seppo Havia, Dittmar, Finland; Guillaume Bordier, Capstan, France; Alexander Ulrich, Kliemt, Germany; Síobhra Rush, Lewis Silkin, Ireland; Ariane Claverie, Castegnaro, Luxembourg; Jan Verlaan and Philip Nabben, BD-Advocaten, Netherlands; Peter Kiely, Kiely Thompson Caisley, New Zealand
[ii] In Belgium, this Green vote was split between the Flemish Groen party and the French-speaking Ecolo party. Groen obtained 10.1% of the Flemish votes, Ecolo 14.5% of the votes in Wallonia and both parties obtained about 20% of the votes in Brussels.
[iii] Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands and the UK.
[iv] In Austria, the Green vote declined from 14.5% to 14.1%.
[v] For example, the Green Party in Luxembourg (Déi Gréng/Les Verts) is the smallest partner in a coalition government with the centre-right Democratic Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party.
[vi] In the European Parliament, the Greens are allied with regional or separatist parties; in Iceland, they are in coalition with a centre-right party and an agrarian party; and in the recent Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in the UK, the Greens formed a pact with the centrist Liberal Democrats as well as the regional Welsh party, Plaid Cymru (all anti-Brexit parties).
[vii] A significant increase from the 4.5% of the vote gained in the last general election in 2016.
[ix] Next year’s US elections could result in the most left-wing US president in living memory, with candidates high in the polls such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren having a strong focus on Green policies.
[xvii] For example, in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
[xviii] Apart from Belgium, Ireland (where a gender pay gap reporting bill is currently working its way through Parliament) and the UK (where gender pay gap reporting obligations already exist).
[xix] Austria, Finland, Luxembourg and Netherlands. (Female quotas on boards for some companies are already part of the law in some of the surveyed countries, such as Denmark and Belgium).
[xx] Canada is an exception.
[xxi] The UK Green Party proposes that the State pays this extended parental leave for small employers.
[xxii] Since the original 1993 EU Working Time Directive.
[xxiii] The UK maintains a controversial right to opt out of the 48-hour week, which the UK Green Party proposes to abolish.
[xxiv] First introduced through the Loi Aubry in 1998.
[xxv] In France, the Greens propose working towards a 32-hour working week, in addition to promoting a four-day working week and sabbaticals.
[xxvi] Ostensibly on a voluntary basis for employers.
[xxvii] However, Ecolo sees this being funded by the State through savings in the employment assistance budget.
[xxviii] Including public holidays.
[xxix] Except Austria.
[xxx] 60% of median wage in Australia; 66% of the average wage in New Zealand; and Cdn$15 in Canada.
[xxxi] The Flemish Groen party.
[xxxii] See above for extending rights to non-standard workers in countries such as Australia, Belgium and Denmark.
[xxxiii] Australia, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand and the UK.
[xxxiv] Mentioned in all countries apart from Germany.
[xxxv] For example, reducing burn out is specifically referred to by Ecolo and Groen in Belgium, and reducing stress-related illness is a Green priority in Canada.
[xxxvi] Increased paid sick leave is a feature in France, Netherlands and New Zealand. Implementation of ILO Conventions features throughout Greens’ proposals in New Zealand and Australia. Increased workplace democracy is mentioned by UK Greens as well as those in New Zealand.
[xxxviii] The UK Green Party also proposes extending employment protection rights to day one of employment, and allowing employees who wish to challenge their dismissal to remain in employment until the hearing with re-employment being the usual remedy for a successful claim.
[xxxix] In Finland, a proposed requirement for companies to map the human rights impact of their business and prevent negative impacts; and in France, support for a treaty subjecting world trade to respect for human rights.
[xl] For example, in the UK, removing the 48-hour working time opt-out, incorporating collective agreements into individual employment contracts, regulating zero-hours contracts and outlawing single union recognition agreements; in Ireland, abolishing exceptions to the right not to be discriminated against on religious grounds; and in New Zealand, support for equitable access for Maori to secure employment, decent wages and trade union organisation.
[xli] In contrast to the Canadian Greens who want to disincentivise the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. They contend it skews the labour market, undermines proper pay levels and exploits foreign workers, so should be used only in exceptional circumstances.