Labor Law

EU workers rights: the laws that protect European citizens

What kinds of European Union labor legislations exist and how do they protect EU citizens working abroad? Here’s a brief guide to EU workers rights and where they come from.

EU workers rights

By Adam Nowek

Updated 9-1-2024

The original goal of the European project was to create a free, single market across the continent. The removal of barriers for trade and movement brought about a long-standing peace and prosperity for many member states, resulting in a wide variety of EU workers rights being created. Now, though, the most important part of European Union regulations for expats is the freedom of movement. This right is essential for the citizens of the 27 European Union member states; not only are EU citizens allowed to move freely throughout all of the member countries in order to find work, it protects citizens from any discrimination based on nationality with regards to employment, their compensation, and working conditions in the entire European Union.

But what are the details of EU workers rights and where do they come from? Before you make a checklist for moving abroad, you should be aware of the rights afforded to you as an EU citizen working in another European Union member state.

European Union legislation provisions

Here’s a quick guide to the essential legislation provisions of the European Union. Some provisions take direct effect and are therefore self-executing; this means that a provision creates rights that an individual may rely on before their domestic court.

In order to have direct effect, the provision must be:

  • clear and unambiguous
  • unconditional
  • not dependent on further action

Provisions in European Union regulations are often self-executing. The domestic court of a country decides whether these three criteria are met and therefore whether a provision is self-executing or not. In this case, the legislation would apply immediately.

Some European Union provisions are not self-executing, though. In this case, they need to be adopted into into national law by the member states within a set period of time. European Union directives work in this way. If a member state does not implement a directive in a timely manner, an employee could (in principle) invoke the directive directly at a domestic court. Provisions in treaties are not self-executing.

The role of the courts

The European Court of Justice makes sure that European Union legislation is interpreted and applied in the same way in all member countries; the law is equal for everyone. It ensures, for example, that national courts do not rule differently on the same issue. The Court also makes sure that European Union member states and institutions do what the law requires. The Court has the power to settle legal disputes between member states, European Union institutions, businesses, and individuals.

European Union flag
Photo: Sara Kurfeß / Unsplash

The national courts in every European Union country are responsible for applying EU laws properly. But there is a risk that courts in different countries might interpret laws differently. To prevent this, there is a preliminary ruling procedure. In general, this means that if a national court is in any doubt about the interpretation or validity of an EU law it may, and sometimes must, ask the European Court of Justice for advice. The European Court of Justice offers this advice in the form of a preliminary ruling.

European laws

A variety of EU workers rights are protected by European Union legislation, such as:

  • Freedom of movement for workers
  • Equal treatment of employees
  • Working conditions
  • Safety at work
  • Wages, income, and working hours
  • Industrial relations
  • Protection of workers
  • Employment incentives

Here is an outline of the most important legislations that protect EU workers rights within the European Union.

European Union regulations

  • 492/2011: Guarantees freedom of movement of workers within the Community. The anchor for this freedom is also located in the European Union’s foundational treaties; in particular, it comes from Council Regulation (EEC) No. 1612/68. It applies directly in member states without transposition into national law.
  • 1215/2012: Focusses on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgements in civil and commercial matters.
  • 593/2008: This is the regulation applicable to contractual obligations.

European Union directives

  • 2003/88/EC: This directive concerns certain aspects of the organization of working time.
  • 2010/18/EU: This directive focusses on the framework agreement on parental leave.
  • 96/71/EC: This directive concerns the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services.
  • 97/81/EC: This directive addresses the conditions of part-time work.
  • 98/59/EC: This directive focusses on member state laws relating to collective redundancies.
  • 99/70/EC: This directive concerns the framework agreement on fixed-term work.
  • 2000/78/EC: This directive establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation. The directive prohibits employment discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation.
  • 2001/23/EC: This directive addresses member state laws relating to the safeguarding of employees’ rights in the event of transfers of undertakings, businesses, or parts of undertakings or businesses.

Treaties that address EU workers rights