The thrust of the Nature story is that European Union (EU) rules intended to give workers more job security could wreck the careers of post-doctorate researchers. This is because the rules require employers to offer anyone who has worked for an employer for four years must, under the terms of the new rules, be offered a permanent contract.
As a result, leaders of research projects, who traditionally rely on being able to hire post-doctoral researchers on short-term contracts, with the option to take them on permanently according to circumstances, will be reluctant give their researchers contracts longer than four years. Furthermore, they are more likely to dismiss workers before their four years are up, to avoid being caught by the rules.
However, if that in itself makes for an interesting story, the background to it is even more interesting – although that is not the best word: “appalling” might be better.
The "EU rules" that are being referred to here are very rum indeed, and are the result of a system brought into force by the Amsterdam Treaty, about which, I guess, very few people in Britain know anything about.
What we are actually talking about in this case is Council Directive 1999/70/EC of 28 June 1999 "concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work concluded by ETUC, UNICE and CEEP". And therein lies some rather worrying detail. According to the recitals:
Following the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the provisions of the Agreement on social policy annexed to the Protocol on social policy, annexed to the Treaty establishing the European Community have been incorporated into Articles 136 to 139 of the Treaty establishing the European Community.Under these articles, it appears that "Management and labour", known in the dire jargon of the EU as "social partners", may request jointly that agreements at Community level are implemented by a Council decision as EU law.
In this case, three EU organisations, the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation (CEEP) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), concluded a deal on 18 March 1999 on fixed-term work. They then passed the details to the commission which framed a legislative proposal which was adopted by the Council.
What an extraordinary situation this is. Employers' organisations and Unions at an EU level stitch up a deal between them and get it adopted by the EU as law. It then becomes law in the UK, whether we like it or not. This cannot be right.