By Chris Bracebridge

In March 2013, the European Commission published preliminary results of its study of the top ten most burdensome EU laws for SMEs.  Employee-related legislation forms a significant part of that list, and is among the most costly and onerous.

The “top ten” study is part of an initiative — the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Program (REFIT) — launched by the Commission back in December 2012 to ease the regulatory burden on SMEs in Europe.  REFIT aims to scrutinize the European legislative and regulatory framework for gaps, burdens and inconsistencies in order to correct them.  The final results and any recommendations to improve and simplify existing legislation will be announced in June 2013.

In the employment context, the Commission is currently taking the following steps:

  • Working time rules.  At the end of 2012, after more than a year of heated negotiations about possible changes to the Working Time Directive (2003/88/EC), the European social partners — BusinessEurope, European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public services, the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, and the European Trade Union Confederation — failed to reach an agreement.  Following the unsuccessful negotiations, the Commission is now considering how to proceed, and whether it will draft a new proposal to amend the Working Time Directive, based on its previous consultation and impact assessment work.
  • Health and safety of workers.  In 2012, the Commission launched a comprehensive policy evaluation to assess the relevance, effectiveness and coherence of the main Directive on safety and health of workers and more than 20 daughter Directives.  The results are expected in 2015.
  • Recognition of professional qualifications.  In 2011, the Commission proposed a new Directive relating to the recognition of professional qualifications across the EU.  Once implemented, the new law would facilitate mobility of workers by introducing a European professional card.  The card would make it easier for the relevant authorities in one Member State to complete the formal processes for the recognition of professional qualifications obtained in other Member States.  This is an important initiative as the success and timing of individual recruitments can have a proportionately greater impact for SMEs.
  • Data protection.  Under the proposed Data Protection Regulation, companies with more than 250 employees will be under an obligation to appoint a Data Protection Officer and carry out regular Data Protection Impact Assessments.  Compliance with these rules will likely have a significant economic impact on businesses, and on SMEs in particular.  In response to concerns voiced by industry, the Commission has proposed that companies with less than 250 workers should be exempt from the above requirements, unless data processing constitutes their main business activity.