Court Finds EU Employment Rules Cover Interim Workers

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — The European Union’s top court found Thursday that workers aren’t exempt from regulations on permanent employment contracts just because they have agreed to multiple temporary contracts.

“The fact that a worker consented to the establishment of successive fixed-term employment relationships does not deprive him or her from the protection granted by the framework agreement on fixed-term work,” the European Court of Justice wrote in a press release, referring to EU employment rules. The ruling was not available in English.

The Luxembourg-based court is currently closed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic but is still issuing judgments in cases it heard before the outbreak began.

Much more common in Europe than in the United States, fixed-term or permanent contracts grant workers a high level of protection against being fired or laid off. They are what many workers, especially those in the public sector, aspire to for job security and prestige.

In 1999, Domingo Sánchez Ruiz was given a temporary position as a computer scientist at Madrid Health Services. He continued on in that role through a series of temporary contracts until 2016, when he requested a permanent contract, which was denied.

Meanwhile, a number of dentists, including Berta Fernández Álvarez, the lead plaintiff in a joined case, were also employed by Madrid Health Services on a series of short-term contracts. These contracts lasted for seven years, at which point the dentists also demanded permanent contracts from their employer.

Sánchez Ruiz and the group of dentists brought separate complaints to a Spanish court in 2016, where they argued they should have been granted permanent contracts in light of Spanish employment law, which requires employers to give fixed contracts after three years of temporary contracts.

In both cases, the Administrative Court in Madrid was uncertain how aligned Spanish law was with a European directive concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work and asked for clarification from the Court of Justice, which joined the two cases.

The EU’s highest court concluded that the framework existed precisely to prevent employers from exploiting workers by refusing to give them a permanent contract, while steadily employing them for long periods of time.

“Workers, as a result of their position of weakness vis-à-vis employers, are likely to be victims of an abusive use, by employers, of successive fixed-term employment relationships, even though they freely consented to the establishment and renewal of those relationships, and may, for that reason, be dissuaded from explicitly claiming their rights vis-à-vis their employer,” the five-judge panel found. “Clause 5 of the framework agreement would lack any effectiveness if fixed-term workers were deprived of the protection that it guarantees them on the sole ground that they freely consented to the conclusion of successive fixed-term employment relationships.”

Beyond Madrid Health Services, the court found that the Spanish health care sector has a structural problem in using too many temporary workers for what should be permanent positions.

The case now returns to the Madrid court. The Court of Justice ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

Spain is one of the European countries hit worst by the COVID-19 outbreak, with 13,000 confirmed cases and more than 500 people dead. On Tuesday, the Spanish government nationalized the entire health care system in an effort to better manage the pandemic.

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