The ECJ was called upon by the Irish Labour Court to interpret Directive 1999/70 which put into effect the framework agreement on fixed term work concluded in 1999 between ETUC, Businesseurope and CEEP. The framework agreement establishes the principle of equal treatment of fixed term workers with comparable full time workers, and obliges Member States to take measures to prevent abusive use of successive fixed term employment contracts.
The dispute arose between IMPACT, a trade union representing the interests of civil servants in Ireland, and the Irish public authorities. They refused to apply the terms of the Directive to a group of public servants who were employed on fixed term contracts, while Ireland was two years late in transposing the Directive properly in its national legislation. The workers involved had been employed for long periods on chains of fixed term contracts, and had been denied a range of benefits that permanent civil servants enjoy such as pay increases and pensions.
In a very welcome judgement today, the European judges ruled that the non-discrimination clause in the Directive is sufficiently precise and unconditional for workers to rely upon it directly before a national court, and that it applies directly also when countries are late in transposing the Directive. Furthermore, equal treatment constitutes a principle of Community law which cannot be interpreted restrictively and clearly covers issues related to pay and pensions, which the Irish authorities had contested.
The ECJ also ruled that the fixed term work Directive must be implemented and enforced by the national authorities, having regard to the principle of effectiveness. In particular, the Court found that national authorities acting as public employers are not authorised to adopt measures contrary to the objective of the Directive from the moment the Directive enters into force. Irish authorities had taken advantage of the delay in the adoption of national legislation transposing the Directive to renew contracts just before the transposition date for an unusually long period (up to eight years), thereby depriving the workers concerned for an unreasonable period of time of the rights introduced by the Directive.
John Monks, General Secretary of the ETUC, said: "Following the very negative rulings in Laval, Viking and Rüffert, the IMPACT judgement is a bit of good news from the ECJ at last! The interpretation of the European judges of the equal treatment provision to include pay and pension and the liability of national authorities acting as public employers is exactly as we intended it to be. This judgement, in particular the direct effect of the non-discrimination clause and the message that the Directive must be implemented effectively, will help to secure a better protection for fixed term workers around Europe, which was the aim of our agreement. We explicitly said in the agreement that indefinite contracts are the general form of employment relationship. Fixed term contracts can only be accepted as a way to respond to specific and temporary needs of both employers and workers, not to create second class workers who would for long periods of time be denied the benefit of stable employment.”