Decision of the European Committee on Social Rights : it’s time for States to stop using volunteer firefighters as a cheaper way to provide emergency public services !

Firefighters suits and helmet©CanStock Photo Leaf

(22 April 2024) EPSU welcomes the decision of the European Committee on Social Rights (ESCR) recognising that volunteer firefighters are workers within the meaning of the European Social Charter. States parties must guarantee they benefit from the Rights provided by the European Social Charter.

In its decision of the 14th February 2024, the Committee finds that France has violated volunteers firefighters’ right to work; right to just conditions of work and right of children and young persons to protection. Their remuneration, working hours and the participation of volunteer minors in routine fire and rescue operations are contrary to the European Social Charter.

The ETUC submitted its opinion as part of the procedure. It emphasises the need for a broad interpretation of the concept of worker within the meaning of the European Social Charter, so that the guarantees associated with this status are extended to as many people as possible. Specifically in this case, the ETUC calls for the concept of worker to include volunteer firefighters.

More generally, the ETUC's comments highlight the risk that budgetary savings will be prioritised to the detriment of fair working conditions for volunteer firefighters.

Firstly, the ECSR rightly followed the example of European Union law as interpreted by the ECJ (see Matzak, 2018) in recognising the worker status of volunteer firefighters.

The right to work (art. 1§2): Complaint about the differences in remuneration between volunteer and professional firefighters: according to the Committee, volunteer firefighters are indispensable to the general functioning of a public service, which makes the differences in remuneration unjustifiable. France is violating the right to work protected by the European Social Charter.

The right to fair working conditions (Art. 2§1): denounce the absence of French legislation regulating the working hours of volunteer firefighters. The Committee considers that the absence of legislation and the failure to take into account the totality of the working time of volunteer firefighters is contrary to the European Social Charter.

The right of children and young people to protection (Art. 7§2): challenge to the French legislation which allows minors aged 16 and over to register as volunteers and to take part in fire-fighting operations. In its decision, the Committee considers that the participation of young volunteers in the above-mentioned operations, as it stands, is contrary to the Charter: such participation is not strictly necessary for their training and the measures to protect their health and safety are insufficient.

EPSU welcomes this decision and calls France, all the States parties to the European Social Charter and the EU Member States to respect this decision.

The ECJ has already recognised the status of workers for volunteer firefighters in its Matzak ruling. 6 years later, it's time for States to stop using volunteer firefighters to make budget savings and to guarantee them fair and equitable working conditions!

EPSU recalls for:

  • Recognition of professional exposure as firefighters as carcinogenic, transposing the World Health Organization classification into EU law (2022).
  • More firefighters and more equipment.
  • Compulsory decontamination and mandatory health screening.
  • Respect the Matzak ECJ judgement and stop using volunteer firefighters as a cheaper way to provide emergency public services.
  • Harmonised equipment and training in joint operations and EU solidarity efforts.
  • EU strategy on firefighters and emergency services.

More info to be found here

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