I thank the honourable Chairman and members and wish everybody a good morning. It is a real honour for me to address this chamber on my first visit to Ireland as European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights. I am very grateful for the invitation to speak today at the committee and to be able to have an exchange of views on a number of topics that are of high importance both to the European Commission, European Union and certainly also to Ireland.
I am very impressed by the work the committee is doing. Despite its short lifespan, this committee has already made a significant contribution to improving the Irish labour market and economy. The pre-legislative scrutiny it carried out on the Right to Request Remote Work Bill 2021, for example, and its tireless work on the scrutiny of European Union legislative proposals, including those that have emerged from the European Pillar of Social Rights, are to be commended.
The European Commission is committed to building a strong social Europe that protects. This is the foundation of all the initiatives that we are proposing. Every action we take comes under the umbrella of the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan, which we presented almost exactly one year ago today in Porto on 4 March 2022 during the European Summit.
As members will know, the European Pillar of Social Rights sets out 20 principles. I just had a meeting with your Tánaiste; I am not sure if my pronunciation is very good. I remember very well he was Taoiseach at that time and signed the European Pillar of Social Rights in Gothenburg.
The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan contains three EU-level targets to be achieved by 2030. The first is that an average of 78% of people aged 20 to 64 should be in employment. Ireland proposed its own national target, which is close to this average.
It is higher than the current average in the EU, which is around 72%. The second target is to have at least 60% of all adults participating in training every year. In this regard, Ireland proposed a higher proportion, which I believe is 64%. The third target is to reduce the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 15 million. I always insist on saying “at least”. Among the 15 million, there are to be least 5 million children. I am convinced that Ireland will be a strong contributor, as it always has been, in achieving these targets, not least because of its ambitious draft national targets, which I mentioned. Ireland is already among the top performers of the Union in many aspects.
We have just had a discussion on the Irish labour market. The shortages in the labour market show the dynamic of the Irish economy. I must also mention the excellent educational outcomes in the Irish system, especially regarding individual digital skills. Ireland is certainly a country in which the digital transformation is very much ahead. The profound effect of social transfers on poverty reduction and improving equality indicators during the past decade all point towards Ireland being an extremely resilient nation and economy. How it came out of the Covid crisis shows this resilience and capacity to adapt and innovate.
It is imperative that the social dimension go hand in hand with the economic recovery. This is in the spirit of this Commission. We want economic innovation, modernisation and competitiveness. We are very much focused on the two big transitions: the climate transition, which is a must for every nation, and the digital transformation. Digital modernisation is key to the competitiveness of our economies, European society and our international competitiveness. Linked to that, we need to take fully into account the social consequences.
Let me say a word on Covid-19 and changes to the labour market. New work patterns have been born out of necessity, while others have been triggered and accelerated due to the possibilities offered by new technologies, especially digitalisation. More and more workers are engaging in platform work, which provides quick income but often puts individuals in a precarious situation. I will say more on this topic later. Perhaps we can discuss it because I have understood that the Irish Government is working a lot on these issues.
Some occupations faded because of the lockdowns, and many workers walked away from certain jobs in sectors that are now struggling to survive and recruit qualified staff. This is also a big issue. The construction sector is in major need of qualified, skilled people. So too is the hospitality sector. The Irish economy is very much focused on tourism and hospitality. Therefore, we have to make sure these sectors have an opportunity to come back after the difficult period caused by the Covid crisis.
Numerous workers have chosen to move to rural settings and to swap urban life and commutes for distant work, thus giving way to the creation of new jobs and services where they did not exist. This has accentuated already apparent labour and skills shortages across Europe in many areas. In health and care provision, there are many traditionally underpaid, difficult jobs that fail to attract new workers. We have seen how important the care sector is, especially during the Covid crisis. An ageing population points to the importance of having a sufficient number of qualified workers in the care and health sectors.
I am aware that Ireland has a very active, dynamic education policy to adapt its education systems to this transformation. It has strengthened its vocational and educational training, which the Commission is supporting very strongly because it believes, precisely in light of the transitions, that vocational training is an important tool in building the bridge between education or school and the jobs market. I will be interested in listening to the members’ comments and ideas on that.
On remote working, teleworking has become common practice among many professionals. I always say that remote working and the rapidity with which we introduced it — it happened in a few weeks or months whereby we all became accustomed to working on screens or by computer — saved our economy, especially our services economy. Ireland is very much a services economy. I am from a country that is quite similar to Ireland in that it has banking, insurance and all kinds of financial services. These were safe because we could continue working through remote working. This is a big change to how people work, and we certainly have to focus on how working conditions associated with remote working, occupational safety, health issues and even mental health issues are treated in this context.
Working time is certainly an issue. The focus of the directive adopted nearly 30 years ago is still very much on the industrial system of work. Circumstances have changed for many people and sectors. This year, there is to be an evaluation of the functioning of the directive. We really must reflect on how working time arrangements function and are organised in the new economy, which involves not only remote working but also new systems of work organisation. This is certainly an important issue. Afterwards, we can perhaps discuss the proposals made by the Irish Government on remote working and the right to disconnect, which has been introduced in some countries and which is under discussion in Ireland. It has been introduced in quite a number of companies. Big companies have introduced their own systems concerning the right to disconnect. It is a matter of how we can organise it at European level by respecting the specific needs of companies, different cultures and so on. We will start discussing this — next week, I believe — at a conference of social partners and experts in Brussels to determine what can be done at European level. I am aware that Ireland is very keen on subsidiarity and respecting social partners, social dialogue and collective agreement.
Let me say a word on health and safety at work. In general terms, we have proposed a new strategic framework on health and safety at work for the period 2021 to 2027. Through the negotiations with the European Parliament, we have made important progress on protecting people from dangerous substances, including carcinogens and mutagens.
The last achievement just before Christmas was really astonishing in that the Council member states adopted the proposal unanimously. There is an awareness of the need to better protect people here. Asbestos is another important subject. Unfortunately, it is still the case that many people die because of asbestos. It is very much linked to construction and to the renovation wave we need in terms of climate and energy. We have to make sure that not only workers but people are protected.
In regard to platform work, which I mentioned earlier, the Commission has made a proposal for a directive here. We have discussed this with the Tánaiste. We do not want to stop or hinder the development of platform work, which is a new model, a new activity, linked to technology on one side but also demands in our markets among people who like to have these kinds of services. We want to promote it. It is creating jobs and helping many mainly young people to enter the jobs market or to have a part-time activity, which is very good. At the same time, we have to make sure that this does not become the kind of world of work dominated by precariousness where people have very low earning and when they have an accident there is insurance and no social or hazard protection. This is the objective of the Commission's proposed directive. We are at the beginning of discussion on it in the Council and in the Parliament. The idea is that we need some kind of a level playing field for Europe because there are many differences in the legal systems, which we do not want to change fundamentally but we, at least, need this kind of level playing field in this area. The issue is the status of those working for platforms, namely, are they independent workers, self-employed or workers. Many of them are probably workers but they are not treated as such. They are considered by the platforms as self-employed and they are denied a certain number of rights that workers should get. I have raised the question as to whether in Europe there are many illegal cases across jurisdictions. We want to ensure there is more clarity and more security, including legal security, for those working on platforms. We need to bring the platforms, with all of their innovation parts, which we do not put into question, into the social framework we have created for all other companies. There cannot be a business model outside of the fundamental rights which have been established all over Europe.
There is also the issue of algorithms, which are part of the platform business model. The platform functions through algorithms, so we need to examine the rights of people in regard to algorithms. This is a new area. The Commission has proposed a special act on artificial intelligence and algorithms. We have to see what impact algorithms have on the world of work. This will open a very important discussion about algorithmic management.
I thank the joint committee for receiving me and for giving me this opportunity. I am happy to engage with it on the issues I have just mentioned or any other issues members may have in mind. I look forward to our exchange.