European Committee of Social Rights

Seat: Strasbourg, France   Instrument: European Social Charter   Operating Since: 1965

Part of the: European Human Rights System

The European Committee of Social Rights (previously, the Committee of Independent Experts on the European Social Charter) is a regional human rights body that oversees the protection of certain economic and social rights in most of Europe.

The European Committee of Social Rights was established under the auspices of the Council of Europe, pursuant to Articles 24 and 25 of the 1961 European Social Charter. The Committee monitors implementation of the 1961 Charter, the 1988 Additional Protocol, and the 1996 Revised European Social Charter. It is unique among regional human rights mechanisms for its collective (as opposed to individual) complaint mechanism, and the flexibility it allows States in deciding which provisions of the Charter to accept.

Mandate

The Committee is designed to complement the European Court of Human Rights, which oversees compliance with the civil and political rights-centered European Convention on Human Rights. The Committee, for its part, oversees compliance with the economic and social rights-centered Social Charter. It does this by managing a State reporting system and a collective complaints procedure.

Unlike the European Convention on Human Rights, ratification of the European Social Charter is not required as a condition of membership in the Council of Europe. As a result, of the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe, 10 have ratified the 1961 Charter and an additional 33 have ratified the 1996 Revised Charter. The Committee reviews compliance with the Social Charter by these 43 States, with notable exceptions.

The Charter itself allows States to submit article-specific reservations, limiting the Charter provisions by which the State is bound, and to decide whether or not to participate in the innovative collective complaints procedure.

Structure

The 15 independent and impartial Committee members serve for six-year, renewable terms of office, as set out in the Rules of the Committee. It conducts approximately seven sessions per year with each session lasting three to five days.

The Bureau of the Committee directs the work of the Committee. It is composed of the President, one or more Vice-Presidents, and a General Rapporteur. Members of the Bureau serve for two-year periods and are eligible for reelection. The members of the Committee elect the members of the Bureau by secret ballot.

The President of the Bureau directs the work and chairs the meetings of the Committee. The Vice-President carries out duties delegated by the President. The General Rapporteur is responsible for ensuring that the Committee’s conclusions and decisions are consistent and for informing the Committee about relevant case law.

Rights Contained in Social Charter

The 1961 European Social Charter enumerates 19 rights and principles which States Parties accept as the “aim” of their respective national policies. The majority of these rights and principles can be characterized as labor rights. They relate to, among other things, the right to safe and healthy working conditions, the right to freely associate in organizations to protect one’s economic and social interests, the right to bargain collectively, the right to fair pay, and the right to special protection in the case of maternity.

Social welfare rights comprise the remainder of the rights under the 1961 Charter. They relate, for example, to the right to benefit from social welfare services, the right of mothers and children to social and economic protection, and the right of workers and their dependents to social security.

The Revised Charter includes 12 new rights and principles, bringing the total number of rights-containing articles to 31. For the most part, the added rights relate to labor conditions, such as the right to dignity at work, the right to be informed and consulted in collective redundancy procedures, and the right to protection in the case of termination. The Revised Charter also provides for the right to equal opportunities and treatment in employment without discrimination based on sex, the right to protection against poverty, and the right to housing.

The European Social Charter is unique in that it permits States to select which articles by which they will consider themselves bound. Under the 1961 Charter, States are required to consider themselves bound by at least five of the following articles:

  • Article 1 (Right to earn a living in an occupation freely entered upon)
  • Article 5 (Right to freely associate in national or international organizations for the protection of one’s economic and social interests)
  • Article 6 (Right to collectively bargain)
  • Article 12 (Right to social security)
  • Article 13 (Right of those without adequate resources to social and medical assistance)
  • Article 16 (Right of the family to appropriate social, legal, and economic protection)
  • Article 19 (Right of migrant workers to protection and assistance)

Additionally, States parties to the 1961 Charter must select no less than 10 articles or 45 numbered sub-paragraphs in total by which to consider themselves bound.

Under the Revised Charter, States are required to consider themselves bound by at least six of the following articles:

  • Article 1 (Right to earn a living in an occupation freely entered upon)
  • Article 5 (Right to freely associate in national or international organizations for the protection of one’s economic and social interests)
  • Article 6 (Right to collectively bargain)
  • Article 7 (Right of children and young persons to special protection against physical and moral hazards)
  • Article 12 (Right to social security)
  • Article 13 (Right of those without adequate resources to social and medical assistance)
  • Article 16 (Right of the family to appropriate social, legal, and economic protection)
  • Article 19 (Right of migrant workers to protection and assistance)
  • Article 20 (Right to equal opportunities and equal treatment in matters of employment without sex-based discrimination)

Additionally, States parties to the Revised Charter must select no fewer than 16 articles or 63 numbered sub-paragraphs in total by which to consider themselves bound.

States that are party to the 1961 Charter or 1988 Additional Protocol may not ratify the 1996 Revised Charter without considering themselves bound by at least those provisions in the Revised Charter that correspond to the provisions by which they were bound under the earlier treaties.

National Reporting System

Each year, States Parties to the European Social Charter submit a national report describing how they are implementing specific provisions of the Charter. The Charter provisions have been divided into four thematic groups and States report on one group each year, with the result being that a review of all of the provisions is accomplished for each State every four years.

The four thematic groups are:

  • employment, training, and equal opportunities
  • health, social security, and social protection
  • labor rights
  • children, families, and migrants

The Committee evaluates the reports and publishes conclusions about whether each State is in conformity with the Charter. Moreover, if a State does not act in response to the Committee’s decision as part of the collective complaints procedure, and if, as a result, the State is not in compliance with the Charter, the Committee will also issue a recommendation to the State.

Following the conclusion of the national reporting procedure, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopts resolutions to close the supervision cycle and issues recommendations to the States calling on them to conform their activities to the Charter. Since the Committee of Ministers comprises government representatives from all Council of Europe Member States, this practice forms a method of enforcement of the Charter.

In April 2014, the Committee of Ministers altered the national reporting system so that it is easier for States that have accepted the collective complaints procedure to participate in the national reporting system. Since States that have accepted the collective complaints procedure have additional compliance and reporting obligations, the Committee of Ministers deemed the new reporting system necessary to create a more manageable system over time. This new arrangement is also intended to streamline and improve the European Committee of Social Rights’ reporting and monitoring efforts.

Under the new reporting system, States that have accepted the collective complaints procedure will submit a simplified report every two years on average, rather than every year. States from Group A (France, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria, Ireland, and Finland) will submit a simplified report in 2014, while the other States that have not accepted the collective complaints procedure will submit normal reports. States from Group B (Netherlands, Sweden, Croatia, Norway, Slovenia, Cyprus, and Czech Republic) will submit a simplified report in 2015, while the other States that have not accepted the collective complaints procedure will submit normal reports. The system will operate as follows:

  Normal Report Simplified Report
October 2014

Group 4: Children, families, and migrants

All States except the ones from Group A States from Group A
October 2015

Group 1: Employment, training, and equal opportunities

All States except the ones from Group B States from Group B
October 2016

Group 2: Health, social security, and social protection

All States except the ones from Group B States from Group B
October 2017

Group 3: Labor Rights

All States except the ones from Group A States from Group A
October 2018

Group 4: Children, families, and migrants

All States except the ones from Group B States from Group B
October 2019

Group 1: Employment, training, and equal opportunities

All States except the ones from Group A States from Group A
October 2020

Group 2: Health, social security, and social protection

All States except the ones from Group A States from Group A
October 2021

Group 3: Labor Rights

All States except the ones from Group B States from Group B

The simplified reports should focus on the Committee’s conclusions of non-conformity from the previous reporting cycle and comment on any questions that were raised. The Committee of Ministers also resolved (Part II.9) to require States submitting simplified reports, i.e., States from Group A and Group B, to describe the steps taken to implement the Committee of Social Rights’ decisions on collective complaints.

Collective Complaints Procedure

The Committee is also empowered to hear collective – not individual – complaints against States that have accepted this procedure. The Committee issues decisions regarding these collective complaints. So far, 15 States have accepted the jurisdiction of the Committee to hear complaints.

In 1995, the Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter Providing for a System of Collective Complaints (Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System) opened for signature, with the aim of improving the “effective enforcement of the social rights guaranteed by the Charter” through the creation of a collective complaints procedure. This agreement entered into force in 1998.

Under the Additional Protocol, several types of organizations are entitled to lodge complaints to the Committee regarding States’ noncompliance with the Charter. They include:

States may also give permission to national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to lodge complaints before the Committee; however, Finland is the only State to have done so.

Since 1998, the Committee has received over 100 complaints. Search the Committee’s decisions by State, keyword, date and other criteria through its database.

Submitting an Application

Complaints submitted to the Committee must be in writing and addressed to the Secretary General, who then submits the complaint to the Committee. The complaint must contain the following information:

  1. the name and contact information of the submitting organization
  2. proof that the person submitting and signing the complaint is empowered to represent the organization
  3. the state against which the complaint is filed
  4. alleged victim(s) of the violation(s)
  5. a statement indicating that the organization or trade union has standing to submit collective complaints under Article 1 of the Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System (standing)
  6. a statement indicating that the alleged violation occurred after the date on which Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System entered into force for the State (ratione temporis)
  7. identification of the Charter provisions alleged to have been violated (Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System, Article 4) (ratione materiae)
  8. facts and arguments surrounding the alleged violation (Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System, Article 4)

Additionally, complaints submitted by international or national NGOs should describe the organization’s “particular competence” regarding the matters covered in the complaint, according to Article 3 of the Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System.

Admissibility

After receiving a complaint, the Committee may request information and observations on admissibility from the complainants and the State, according to Article 6 of the Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System. If the Committee determines that the formal requirements of a complaint have been met, then it declares the complaint admissible.

Merits

Once the Committee determines that a complaint is admissible, there is an exchange of “relevant written explanations or information” between the complainants and the State. The Committee may also hold a public hearing.

Following this process, the Committee prepares a report outlining its conclusions about whether or not the State has satisfactorily implemented the Charter. It forwards its decision to the complainants, the State, and the Committee of Ministers. The report is made public within four months of being forwarded.

Implementation

Implementation of the Committee’s decisions does not end with the Committee itself. Rather, following a decision on the merits, the Committee of Ministers considers the report and adopts a resolution by a majority of voting States. If the Committee of Social Rights finds that the Charter has not been applied “in a satisfactory way,” the Committee of Ministers may issue, by a two-thirds vote among States Parties to the Charter, a recommendation to the offending State.

After the Committee of Social Rights has issued its decision on the merits of the complaint, the State concerned must annually provide information about the steps it has taken to implement the Committee’s recommendations to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

Originally, States were required to submit reports every two years, according to Article 10 of the Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System, Article 21 of the 1961 Charter, and Article C of the 1996 Revised Treaty. In 2006, the States Parties to the 1961 Charter and the Revised Treaty agreed instead to present annual reports on one of four thematic groups, a reporting process which is described in greater detail above.

If the Committee of Social Rights “raises new issues,” the State concerned may also request that the Committee of Ministers take a vote to consult the Governmental Committee, a body of representatives of States Parties that considers decisions of non-compliance by the Committee of Social Rights. See Additional Protocol Providing for a Collective Complaints System, art. 9. There must be a two-thirds majority among States Parties to the Charter in order for the Committee of Ministers to consult the Governmental Committee about the new issues.