Outsourcing: the gap in workers' protection

Syndex report

(23 April 2021) Outsourcing and privatisation have taken their toll on workers’ pay and conditions over many years and as a new study highlights the European legislation that is meant to protect workers is not up to the job.

Workers’ influence on outsourcing, tender processes and transfer of employment contracts: watch the gap! is the result of a two-year project coordinated by the Syndex trade-union linked consultancy and four European trade union federations EPSU, UNI-Europa (services), EFFAT (food and tourism) and ETF (transport).

Outsourced workers who find themselves transferred to a new employer should be covered by the Acquired Rights directive from 1977 most recently amended in 2001 (2001/23/EC). This aimed to level the playing field in the single market by preventing takeovers of economic activities without considering the existing workforce.

Despite the changes, considerable case law and campaigning by unions, the research and cases discussed in this project revealed that the application of the directive is complex and conditional on passing certain thresholds. This has created a patchwork of local and sectoral differences across Europe, meaning that many workers are still highly vulnerable to the race-to-bottom business model of tendering.

While this may be a boost to taxpayers and shareholders, it is workers in these sectors who foot the bill with less job security, lower salaries and higher workload. Many workers in cleaning, private security, contract catering, IT services, landscaping, waste management, public transport and building maintenance have suffered these consequences.

These gaps in the system have resulted in ongoing court cases and further developing case law. The debates and exchanges in the project underlined that revision of the directive combined with collective bargaining strategies are critical, and an opportunity to close the gap and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers.

The project report is available in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

  • The situation of workers transferred (back) to the public sector is also not straightforward and EPSU contributed a workshop to the project that revealed some of the challenges they face and which are also covered in a guide to remunicipalisation produced by Public Services International.