All too often in UK public debate, the EU is presented as a static monolith, rather than the constantly evolving cooperation between sovereign member states that it is. However in one area, the criticism that the EU has been too static is a fair one: social Europe. Therefore, the latest announcements of a new European Labour Authority and the conclusion of a deal brokered by the Bulgarian Presidency on the posting of workers, are very welcome developments demonstrating that ‘Brussels’ is responding to public concerns about unfair labour competition and exploitation.
While it’s true that most UK employment rights and protections stem from EU legislation, much of that legislation was enacted in the 1990s and some key rights have been bypassed by the reality on the ground: greater precariousness at work, the use of legal and dodgy loopholes (for instance the so-called ‘Swedish derogation’ in the agency workers directive), and obstacles to accessing justice to enforce rights, such as the imposition of fees for employment tribunals. Moreover, a bit of honesty is needed. Our politicians (of all parties) have long blamed the EU for some of the problems caused by ‘immigration’ when in fact it is decisions made at Westminster to liberalise our labour market that are really to blame (I’ve written elsewhere about what could be done today to redress this).
When I was talking with construction workers or factory staff in my constituency ahead of the European referendum, they had legitimate concerns about how free movement had enhanced the opportunities for exploitation of workers. The perceived lack of fair rules and enforcement was exploited by the Leave campaign to great effect.
Therefore, Jean-Claude Juncker’s announcement of a new European Labour Authority (ELA) during his State of the Union Address in 2017 was a very welcome move. Marianne Thyssen, the EU Commissioner in charge of employment policy has unveiled the proposal this month, calling it the jewel in the crown of a well-functioning European labour market – I thoroughly agree, it demonstrates that social Europe is not ossified and that progressive initiatives are still possible within the EU. As always, the devil will be in the detail, and as the ETUC has stated, this can’t be a cosmetic exercise but must have the resources and powers to sanction exploitation.
Every day 1.7 million Europeans commute to another EU member state for work and about 16 million now live and work in a member state other than that of their nationality – twice as many as 10 years ago. Moreover, increasing trade in services also entails the mobility of workers, known as posted workers, who have not benefited from adequate worker protection.
With such large numbers and with them continuing to grow, the need for a regulatory body that would guarantee fairness in the freedom of movement for workers and fair labour mobility has become obvious within the EU institutions. The absence of enforcement measures is recognised as endangering the very future of free movement between EU member states, with populist movements playing on fears of social dumping and undercutting.
As a consequence, and in conjunction with the ELA, the ground-breaking deal this month between the Council and the European Parliament which guarantees ‘equal pay for equal work in the same place’ for posted workers adds to the strengthening of EU workers’ rights legislation, ensuring better protection and fairer competition for companies. For too long, the revision of the posted workers directive has divided the EU east-west - the labour-exporting and the labour-importing countries. Therefore, the fact that this deal has been brokered under the Bulgarian Presidency, concerned about the impact of brain-drain on eastern labour markets, also marks a tectonic shift in European social policy-making and a rebalancing which could see new life injected into Social Europe.
Hard Brexiteers seem willing to jettison the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on the single market just to show they are tough on free movement. The real enemy is exploitation: not the exploited but those who exploit. This month, the EU has demonstrated that it is listening to these concerns and recognises that they pose an existential threat long-term. Tragically as the EU gets its ducks in a row when it comes to cross-border workers’ rights and protections, UK workers will be left at the hands of a Tory government making promises about protecting rights when in practice it is actually making it more difficult for people to exercise them. They will also be subject to the terms of a UK-EU free trade agreement which falls below the standards of the single market.