This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

Employment and working conditions in Europe: How much can one work?

Unemployment, growing competition and the shift of the European Union (EU) from 10 to soon 27 member states have had a deep impact on employment and working conditions in the EU, says a new study by the ILO and the European Commission. For the first time, the study provides information on employment and working conditions in the enlarged EU and identifies the workers most at risk in this process. ILO Online reports from Croatia.

Article | 04 April 2007

RIJEKA (ILO Online) – Ivan, aged 49, owns a small shop in the apartment building where he lives, selling newspapers, tobacco, stationery, toys, books and everything for school.

After a "troublesome start" in 1992, business stabilized after 1996. He hired two employees but in 2000 he realized that he couldn't afford more than one. Ivan is a very concerned employer: Nena, his employee, has permanent employment, no overtime and no work on weekends.

While she enjoyed two maternity leaves, Ivan was on his own, working even harder than usual. And that is already a lot. The shop is open Monday to Saturday from 7.00 to 21.00, and on Sundays from 8.00 to 12.00. When asked about annual leave, he laughed: "Not a day off in the last five years!"

Does this amount of work pay? Hardly in monetary terms: the shop's annual net profit is between EUR 6,000 and EUR 7,500 – that is between EUR 500 and EUR 622 a month for around 90 hours of work a week.

What about his work-life balance? Ivan thinks that it is worth it: "The children have grown up in a family where they learned that you have to work hard." On the other hand, Ivan is overworked, "permanently tired". He still likes his job but he is considering a change: "I can't go on like this for much longer".

While the case of Ivan shouldn't be taken as representative, it certainly illustrates the enormous difficulties faced by the self-employed and small firms in Croatia and other European countries. Many of them work very long hours depriving them of sleep and rest, not to mention holidays with their families for whom they provide a livelihood.

"If self-employment in Croatia is a major survival strategy, but also a source of satisfaction, for many it is a hard choice, full of risks and associated vulnerabilities", says Daniel Vaughan-Whitehead, a senior ILO expert on working conditions and one of the editors of the study.

According to the study, trends toward "normalization of labour markets" and "progress in working conditions" in Croatia have set in during the 2000s.

"This has been supported by political normalization, solid economic growth and growing credibility, coupled with the conditionalities of EU integration. But for too many this 'normalization' is merely nominal, while real employment and working conditions have remained hard or even worsened", says Vaughan-Whitehead.

Innovations and new risks

Based on case studies from Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, the study provides timely information on social policy and labour market trends in the EU enlargement process and how these may affect workers and their families.

"On the one hand, labour market innovations such as a greater diversity in employment contracts and working time arrangements facilitate labour market entry and exit …on the other, they entail new risks, particularly for women, immigrants, young and older people", says Vaughan-Whitehead.

According to the study, employment creation in Europe is occurring mainly in less regulated sectors, such as retail, personal services and which affect mainly young workers. According to Vaughan-Whitehead, "problems are most acute for this age group which represents our future".

The study presents information on trends in all important elements of the world of work in the enlarged EU 27: employment contracts, working time and work intensity, wages, training, health and safety, social dialogue and workers' participation, and work-family balance.

"It does this from an original perspective, through a series of case studies like the one on Ivan and other self-employed in Croatia. That helps to better identify what practices are put in place at enterprise level, and how such different working and employment conditions are combined and interact at local level", explains Vaughan-Whitehead.

At the same time the study tries to identify the workers most at risk in this process, those vulnerable workers who often represent the myriad of 'working poor' in a country. "This approach suits well the new Lisbon target of the European Union of creating 'more and better jobs' and the EU contributions to the implementation of the ILO's Decent Work Agenda in the world", says François Eyraud, Executive Director of the International Training Centre of the ILO in Turin, Italy, and co-editor of the study.

"We may have more jobs but should we not check whether it is not to the detriment of higher-quality jobs'? We should try to reach the two targets and not only one", he adds.

The study calls on policy-makers, as well as economic and social actors, to pay more attention to the vulnerability of workers, working conditions and employment quality – that is, not only wages or working-time but other issues such as reconciliation of work and family life.


Note 1 - The Evolving World of Work in the Enlarged EU, Progress and Vulnerability, ed. by François Eyraud and Daniel Vaughan-Whitehead, International Labour Office and European Commission, ISBN 978-92-2-119547-4. Geneva, 2007.