EU economic policy, the single market and regional policy would not effectively secure economic and social cohesion without a legal framework to ensure fair treatment for all citizens. For example, if workers have fewer rights in some member states than in others businesses would (all other things being equal) be incentivised to move to those areas where labour is cheaper and easier to dispense with in times of hardship.
This social dimension of the EU is primarily enshrined in the community charter of fundamental social rights for workers – the 'social chapter' – appended as a protocol to the Maastricht Treaty (due to the refusal of the UK to participate) and incorporated into the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997.
The social chapter sets out general principles on rights to be enjoyed by workers throughout the EU, including:
Improved working conditions
Social security protection
Freedom of association and collective bargaining
Equal treatment for men and women
Health protection and workplace safety
Protection for children, older people and disabled people
The Amsterdam Treaty also added an employment chapter within the treaties, declaring the promotion of employment as a matter of high priority and common concern.
The EU is therefore empowered to legislate to promote these objectives, but this area of activity remains controversial, due to questions of sovereignty and because different political persuasions have different ideas on the priority these and other objectives have and how they should be pursued. As a result, progress has been relatively slow.