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Trade unions fighting against Brussels plans for EU-wide minimum wage

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A Brussels drive to create an EU-wide minimum wage system has run into opposition from trade unionists in some member states.

Portugal’s largest trade union federation, the CGTP, is the latest to speak out – arguing that the proposals are a “trap” and could hurt workers. 

Trade unionists from Nordic countries such as Sweden and Denmark – where the setting of wages through collective bargaining is the norm – have also been critical of the plans, pushed by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

“The European Commission’s proposal clearly aims to assume a logic of interference in what is the responsibility of each member state, which is to define collective hiring policies and at the same time salary increases,” the Portuguese CGTP’s secretary-general, Arménio Carlos, argued.

“We are facing a trap because there is no European minimum salary. What there is is a discussion of criteria that, if applied, would be detrimental to Portuguese workers.”

Portugal has a relatively high minimum wage relative to its median income and poverty threshold and unions fear that EU criteria could be used as a pretext to set sights lower in future. It also has a high level of collective bargaining coverage, at 89 per cent.

Ms Von der Leyen says a framework governing EU minimum wages could help stop the “brain drain” from east to west across the continent and reduce the incentive for people to migrate between countries. 

Under the plans, Brussels would not set an explicit salary floor but instead draw up rules as to what proportion of the cost of living the minimum wage would have to set in each country.

But some EU countries, including high-wage economies like Sweden, do not have statutory minimum wages – and instead tend to set wage floors through negotiations with trade unions and employer.

An EU promise that such rules would not force countries without a statutory minimum wage to introduce one appears not to have swayed the plans Scandinavian opponents. 

Lizette Risgaard, president of the Danish trade union confederation, said last week: “The wage-setting in the so-called Danish model of collective bargaining is based on negotiations between the social partners, and productivity and innovation are crucial elements in these negotiations.

“The precondition for the Danish model is great support from both workers and companies, and wage statistics show that the Danish model in general ensures that most workers in Denmark receive a wage that is both decent and can provide a good standard of living.

“A parallel system based on statutory minimum wage or universal coverage of collective agreements does not ensure that all workers receive a wage ensuring a decent standard of living. The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions therefore fears that a statutory minimum wage can weaken the effectiveness of the Danish model.”

Some elements of the UK trade union movement were opposed to statutory minimum wages before the Labour government introduced one in 1999. Such opposition is now rare to non-existent in Britain, however. 

Six EU member states – Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Italy and Sweden – set no statutory legal minimum wage and rely on trade unions to protect workers. The EU’s lowest absolute monthly minimum wage is Bulgaria’s €286, while the highest is Luxembourg’s €2,071.

A European Commission statement said: “There will not be a one-size-fits-all minimum wage. Any potential proposal will reflect national traditions, whether collective agreements or legal provisions. Some countries already have excellent systems in place. The Commission wishes to ensure all systems are adequate, have sufficient coverage, include thorough consultation of social partners, and have an appropriate update mechanism in place.”

Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said: “The working lives of millions of Europeans will change in the coming years. We need to take action to allow the future workforce to flourish. 

“Europe’s innovative and inclusive social market economy must be about people: providing them with quality jobs that pay an adequate wage. No Member State, no region, no person can be left behind. We must continue to strive for the highest of standards in labour markets, so that all Europeans can live their lives with dignity and ambition.”

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Taliban offer ceasefire in bid to restart talks with US

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The Taliban will implement a 10-day ceasefire with US troops, a reduction in violence with Afghan forces and discussions with Afghan government officials if it reaches a deal with US negotiators in talks in Doha, two sources have said.

If an agreement is sealed, it could revive hopes for a long-term solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Taliban and US negotiators met on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the signing of a peace deal, according to a spokesman for the Taliban office in Qatar. The talks were “useful” and would continue for a few days, the spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said on Twitter early on Friday.

Donald Trump had called off the stop-start talks to end the 18-year war in September after a US soldier was killed in an attack by the militant group.

They resumed but were interrupted again in December after the Taliban launched a suicide attack on a US base outside Kabul killing two civilians.

Two sources close to the matter told Reuters on Wednesday that the Taliban’s top leadership had now agreed to implement a 10-day ceasefire with US troops once a deal was signed in Doha, and to “reduce” attacks against the Afghan government.

A senior Taliban commander said: “The US wanted us to announce a ceasefire during the peace talks which we had rejected. Our shura [council] has agreed to a ceasefire the day the peace accord is signed.”

Once an agreement is in place, the Taliban and Afghan government could meet face to face in Germany, said the commander. Previously, the Taliban had refused to engage in talks with the Afghan government.

The US team in Doha had demanded a ceasefire “which we had declined due to some issues,” the Taliban commander said. “Now most of our reservations have been addressed.” Another source close to the talks confirmed the commander’s version of events.

A signing date has not been fixed, but the Taliban commander said he expected it to be “very soon.”

Both sources asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

A US State Department spokesperson declined to comment and the Pentagon referred queries to the State Department.

An Afghan presidency spokesman said a ceasefire was the only way to achieve sustainable and dignified peace. “Any plan which proposes a ceasefire as a basic step will be acceptable for the government,” Sediqi Sediqqi tweeted on Friday.

Violence in Afghanistan rose after the breakdown of talks in September.

The Taliban’s readiness to reduce violence revives odds of the peace process moving forward before the militant group launches what is usually an annual spring offensive around early April. 


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Austria’s new green-conservative coalition still refuses to sign up to UN migrant rights treaty

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Austria is still refusing to sign up to a key United Nations treaty recognising the rights of migrants, despite a change in government that saw the far-right replaced by the country’s green party. 

The new government took office on 7 January this year with conservative ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz in for his second stint as chancellor.

Mr Kurz was previously in coalition with the far-right FPÖ, but has now gone into government with the Austrian Green Party following elections.

The previous Austrian government rejected the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration – which recognises the rights of migrants to access basic services and be treated humanely.

But it appears that the switch of the far-right for the greens has had no effect on the new government’s position with regards to the compact.

Austria‘s line on this issue will remain completely unchanged,” ÖVP foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg told the APA news agency.

Mr Schallenberg said joining the treaty was not compatible with the new coalition agreement, while a government spokesperson said Austria believed the agreement was “not a suitable instrument for solving the migration challenges”.

Green vice Chancellor Werner Kogler also confirmed his party would not be pushing for membership of the treaty, stating: “The government program is an overall compromise.”

The Austrian government says the agreement does not properly distinguish between legal and illegal migration, or between economic migrants and refugees. 

While most countries have signed up to the pact, some states with governments particularly hostile to immigration have dropped out, including the US, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Israel, Australia and Slovakia.

Austria’s government is being watched around the world because it is the first national coalition government between a conservative party and a green party.

It is unlikely to be the last: polls in neighbouring Germany currently suggest a pact between Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the German green party could be on the horizon after elections scheduled for 2021. The parties already have a history of cooperation at state level.  

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