In an interview with RTL Infos, Nora Back emphasised the crucial impact of the forthcoming social elections in Luxembourg, outlining how they can reshape the labour landscape and enhance protections for workers over the next five years.
On 12 March, social elections will take place in Luxembourg, with more than 600,000 residents and cross-border workers voting. In conversation with RTL Infos, Nora Back, president of the Chamber of Employees and of the Independent Luxembourg Trade Union Confederation (OGBL), explained how crucial these elections will be for the Luxembourg labour market over the next five years.
What will the social elections change for employees?
Nora Back: "In practical terms, employees will be protected by members of the Chamber of Employees. By casting their vote in favour of the Chamber, the employee will amplify the political power of this institutions who plays a pivotal role in formulating opinions on various legislative matters, including bills and regulations in the country. Their voice will carry greater significance and garner increased attention in the broader political landscape.
"Additionally, on 12 March, all firms with more than 15 employees will also hold social elections. Employees will be able to elect their own representatives within their own firms. This means that employees will be able to elect one of their own colleagues who will, on behalf of all employees of the firm, defend them collectively, improve their working conditions, their salaries, their situation at work and will not leave an employee stranded while facing the boss."
How does the Chamber of Employees defend employees?
"The Chamber of Employees does many things. The first big pillar of our work is that the Chamber issues opinions on legislative bills and Grand-Ducal regulations. In the legislative process, we issue opinions on all bills of law and in this way defend the interests of employees and retirees.
"The Chamber of Employees also invigorates the entire political debate by regularly organising conferences open to the general public, which people engage with passionately. Representatives of employers, as well as political figures, and working individuals attend these conferences."
"Additionally, the Chamber often conducts important surveys. The 'Social Panorama' survey, for example, measures inequalities in Luxembourg. The results of these surveys shine a spotlight on these inequalities and put them on the political agenda consistently, and the information collected in the survey is used in political debates. Politicians and individuals from social and political spheres use our survey to demonstrate that inequalities are increasing and that the number of people living under precarious or impoverished circumstances is increasing. So, this helps in moving the debate in the right direction.
"We also have another survey called the 'Quality of Work Index' which measures employee wellbeing, and that can translate workers' discontent into facts and figures."
Does this mean that the Chamber is against employers?
"No, not at all, the Chamber of Employees is not against employers. On the contrary, in an ideal world, we should be able to cooperate with employers in order to prevent employees's discontent to grow larger or worsen. So, our work is in the best interests of employers and employees alike as employers will have several outlets to negotiate employee grievances, through elected employee representatives or through the Chamber of Employees. In our eyes, the more we can improve people's working conditions and their motivation, the better this is for the economy and for employers."
Employees are increasingly less satisfied at work despite spending most of their time there. What solutions do you have in mind to tackle this?
"There are several solutions. Firstly, we have to reduce working hours whilst maintaining salaries. We spend far too much of our precious time at work. Therefore, the way forward is to adjust our working hours in a way that promotes a better work-life balance, which is becoming increasingly difficult.
"Plus, with new jobs and steps towards digitalisation in the working world, we are becoming highly interconnected with our work. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to 'log off', so to speak, at the end of the day. Therefore here as well we have to act and advocate for the right to disconnect.
"For employee wellbeing we have to improve working conditions. Today, it is less about the physical challenges of work and more about the mental health of workers and the psychological impact on employee wellbeing. We have to assure that people do not work themselves to the point where they become ill. This is not the world we want to live in.
"We have to take precautionary measures to prevent employees from being at increased psychological risks of burn out, fatigue, stress, bullying, etc.
"One of the most important factors in assuring employee wellbeing is to have an outlet for employees where they are given a voice to make decisions that benefit employees collectively at the workplace."
Employees are looking for better work-life balance. How can the Chamber of Employees help?
"This may seem simple but it's a bit more complicated than one might expect as this requires legal action. We would have to draft laws that allow better work-life balance. For these laws to pass there needs to political will, which is incredibly difficult.
"Then you would need the will of employers, which seems even more difficult. In the employers' ideal world, they want maximum flexibility on the employees part, which goes directly against principles of employee work-life balance.
"Employees want to know exactly when their working hours are in order to manage their personal lives in advance and in accordance with work. This is important for parents for example, as they have to arrange their children's nurseries and their school activities as well. In order to do this you need laws.
"In these laws, we could guarantee weekly rest, for example, in sectors where working on Sundays is not necessarily required. We could ensure social leaves for those who need to take care of their families. We could add more opportunities for parental leaves, etc.
"Today, the government, for example, talked about extending parental leave, which is a good thing. But the government wants to extend parental leave without any obligation to maintain salary. So, it would allow those who have the financial means to stay at home to take care of their children to do so, but those who need to work for their salary will not benefit from this new parental leave."
Are there any risks of the Luxembourg market becoming less attractive in the future?
"Yes, today, we are at serious risk of losing labour due to the declining attractiveness of various sectors of the economy. Currently, we are already facing a labour shortage in almost every economic sector, and we rely on the labour force of cross-border workers. During Covid, we saw how dependent we are on cross-border workers. However, the moment they feel that working conditions and wages in Luxembourg are less attractive, they will no longer have a reason to cross the border every day and travel hundreds of kilometres to work in Luxembourg. So, action is direly needed. We need to make our workplaces more attractive, with higher wages and more attractive working conditions."
Better pay was always at the centre of the attractiveness of working in Luxembourg...
"Yes, but sadly this is not the case anymore in Luxembourg with salaries in neighbouring countries looking as attractive.
"In fact, in certain sectors in neighbouring countries, the minimum wage today is even higher than in Luxembourg. What this means is that someone earning minimum wage in a neighbouring country will no longer have a reason to cross the border.
"The myth of very high salaries in Luxembourg needs to be put to an end once and for all, as we have higher living costs than other countries. Unfortunately, we can also observe, thanks to the Social Panorama survey, that the risk of poverty rate increases every year. Luxembourg's workers have the highest risk of poverty in the Eurozone.
"We call for an increase in the social minimum wage, the maintenance of the indexation system, as it is our only way of being compensated for the loss of purchasing power during high inflation periods. We also advocate for more collective agreements."
Not long ago, the idea of a four-day working week was on the table in Luxembourg. What would that entail?
"Prior to the parliamentary elections in Luxembourg last year, certain parties put the idea of reducing working hours forward. Today, with the new government and according to the coalition programme, this is no longer on the political agenda. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. The government's programme on working hours is very liberal, even ultra-liberal, and advocates for further increased flexibility in working hours."
Can we expect any developments in remote working?
"I truly hope that here in Luxembourg we will have some good news on the remote working front. In Luxembourg, we have several rules for workers in a company. A French, German, Belgian worker, and a resident in Luxembourg have different systems for working remotely. It's challenging to navigate and there needs to be a breakthrough at some point. A bilateral agreement or, even better, an agreement between all countries on the possibility of increasing opportunities for remote working. But here as well, there needs to be some political will in favour of more remote work."
What are your hopes for the future?
"A topic that will be addressed soon and interests us immensely is the subject of the law on collective labour agreements. We have a European directive that requires all member countries to cover 80% of employees through a collective labor agreement.
"In Luxembourg, we are barely at 50% of employees who are covered by collective labour agreements, but this European legal obligation will allow us to act and implement more collective labour agreements. Moreover, the new Minister of Labour has already convened a permanent committee on Labour and Employment. This also gives us hope that we are heading in the right direction and that we will make fairly quick progress."