Why the Free Movement of Workers Needs to be Opposed

The free movement of workers across the EU has been a disaster for the wages and conditions of both migrants and local labour forces, undermining wages and conditions, putting pressure on services and preventing or attacking union organisation in workplaces.

The draft Posted Workers Enforcement Directive (PWED) purports to address problems raised by European unions related to the the 1996 Posting of Workers Directive which was supposed to ensure that, when people moved around the EU to work for their employer (posted workers) they got a fair rate of pay for the country where they worked, and the local labour force wasn’t undercut.

This hasn’t happened and in the UK the minimum wage has offered little protection for both existing workers or immigrants. Decisions of the European Court of Justice in the Viking and Laval line of cases have seriously limited the level of protection afforded by the 1996 Directive and restricted the ability of governments to introduce national legislation, or for trade unions to negotiate collective agreements, to increase the level of protection for posted workers.

The judgements also raised questions about whether national authorities can always require foreign contractors to comply with social standards or collectively agreed terms and conditions set out in a public procurement contracts. For example, some employers seek to rely on these judgements to argue it is not possible for a government or local authority to require contractors to pay the living wage.

The draft PWED is a compromise sop drafted by the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the European Commission over the past few years which will be debated shortly in the Employment Committee of the European Parliament, which will pass the result to the Parliament as a whole (‘the plenary’). It is very technical but basically does not address several key problems, including the issue of employers devising bogus self-employment arrangements to avoid employment protections for posted workers. Also our own government doesn’t want member states to have more control measures to monitor the flow and working conditions of posted workers as they may be regarded as protectionist, which would limit the bosses capacity to exploit workers. The last point relates to whether only the main contractor is liable for the failure to comply with posted worker rights or they can argue a get out via ‘due diligence’ if sub-contractors are responsible, with the unions arguing there should be joint liability.

Recently TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has written to MEPs urging them to put off the adoption of the draft Posted Workers Enforcement Directive because it doesn’t address the problems with the Posting of Workers Directive that it was meant to solve but it is in practice only union action will protect workers’ rights.

A major and looming issue for unions will be the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) which will include provision for the movement of temporary workers across borders. Companies moving workers temporarily across borders for services work is part of the neoliberal international trade agenda. It is called ‘Mode 4’ in ‘tradespeak’. The EU includes Mode 4 provision in all of its ‘trade’ agreements.

Currently an EU/India free trade agreement is in negotiation. The Indian government wants any Indian firm to be able to supply workers into the EU. The UK is probably the main and willing target for this cheap labour supply, and WTO frameworks, which are used generally, do not allow any numerical limits or quotas on Mode 4. David Cameron has confirmed these conditions on his several visas to India as UK Prime Minister and this could be signed any time.

Mode 4 will be a part of the TTIP and it will not just apply to EU and US forms supplying labour across borders, but also subsidiaries from third country firms established in either of those partner states, supplying workers into the other partner state. So, for instance, the many Indian corporations established in the UK would be able to utilise TTIP provision to supply workers into the US, or, if established in the US, to similarly supply workers here.

The TTIP is a massive attack on workers and national sovereignty but as yet has to meet full opposition from the UK, European and US labour movements, who believe they can merely suggest tinkering with provisions and the public is completely unaware of it. We need nothing less than a sustained campaign right now as it could go through by the end of the year.


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