Ending social security 'chicanery' in Europe
by Jean Lambert
Certain low-cost airlines were registering their highly mobile flight staff at PO Box offices in member states with low-cost social security systems - reveals MEP
In our April session, the European Parliament voted to update rules on social security co-ordination; a vital piece of legislation which enables citizens to move within Europe while maintaining their rights to core social security benefits - such as healthcare, pensions and unemployment benefits. This latest revision closed a loophole, which was being exploited by certain low-cost airlines that were registering their highly mobile flight staff at PO Box offices in member states with low-cost social security systems. This left their employees with social security rights in a different country to that in which they habitually worked or lived. So, flight crew working out of Ireland might find themselves covered in Malta, or those working out of Belgium could find themselves in the Irish system.
The European Union regulation now includes a definition of "home-base", in-line with an already existing legal definition. Effectively, the place where the personnel normally starts or ends a duty period or a series of duty periods and where, under normal conditions, the operator is not responsible for the accommodation of the aircrew member. In the debate, the EP made its position clear; these rules were not designed to provide businesses with an opportunity to cut costs, but to protect the rights of individuals.
We also changed the rules on unemployment benefit for "frontier" self-employed workers - those living in one country, working across the border in another and returning at least weekly. Some had found they lost the right to unemployment benefit when they had to return their country of residence. They can now retain this payment for a period of time to help in their search for work. This is an important new step as a bridging mechanism between different systems and an example of how member states are starting to recognise the need to make mobility work for people.
This coordination, not harmonisation, of social security systems was an early piece of European legislation first introduced in 1971. It covers core social security sectors, although it does not cover access to housing – contrary to the claims of some ill-informed MEPs. It is complex in administration and a constant source of query and complaints to the European Commission and parliament's Petitions Committee. Not least, because it has to try and keep up with the changes at member state level. Next year's "European year of Citizens" is aiming to highlight the rights people have and this area is high on the agenda.
One change brought in when the parliament finished the major overhaul of the coordination in 2009, when I was rapporteur, is that all citizens can now request information about their social security status when moving within the EU – and that this information should be automatically sent to posted workers. At least you can then be sure as to which system is covering you. However, the regulation's basic principle is clear: when in a cross-border situation, you generally have equal treatment with nationals of the state in which you work or reside and only one system applies.
Jean Lambert is a Green MEP for London in the United Kingdom
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