Social Europe “buried” as EU ministers amend controversial work directive

While EU employment ministers struggled to reach an agreement on a controversial work directive in the European Council building in Brussels, national and international trade unions held a “funeral for Social Europe” just a few metres away.

On Monday morning, under a banner proclaiming “RIP labour inspection”, worker representatives from the construction and transport sectors held a symbolic funeral procession in response to proposed amendments to the 1996 Posting of Workers Directive.

In its present state, the directive is subject to what unions describe as “abuse on a massive scale resulting in the social exploitation of thousands of migrant workers every day.”

Initially, the enforcement aimed to resolve the various legal, administrative and practical forms of abuse that occur when workers from one EU state are temporarily posted to another.

However, trade unions argue that following repeated amendments by the Council, the compromise version makes workers even more susceptible to cross-border exploitation as it reduces national labour inspections and offers little in terms of sanctions for contractors who violate the directive.

It also does nothing to resolve the urgent issue of bogus self-employment, particularly in the construction industry.

“It is a bad compromise for posted workers, a bad compromise for Social Europe,” Werner Buelen, Political Secretary for the European Federation of Building, told Equal Times.



According to official figures, companies based in Europe post around one million workers each year from one member state to another.

When foreign companies undercut local service providers because their labour standards and wages are lower, this is known as “social dumping”.

Although the Council has been divided over the issue for 18 months, an agreement was reached on Monday afternoon, after the Lithuanian presidency amended the text three times.

France and Belgium backed by Germany were pushing for changes that would prevent the “importation” of workers from low-protection countries, while Eastern European countries along with the UK and Ireland prioritised freedom of movement, fearing a possible “distortion of the internal market.”

"There is an urgent need to reinforce the safeguards in EU rules to ensure that posted workers’ rights are respected in practice, and to allow European businesses to operate with more legal certainly and transparency,” said Lazlo Andor, Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, in a press briefing on Monday.

However, many trade unions are furious with what they see as political back peddling.

“We feel betrayed. Once again our politicians are ready to take back every little thing that we have gained so far. If this legislation is adopted we will take further actions,” Enrique Carmona from the Spanish trade union Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras told Equal Times.

Unions are unhappy that the new EU legislation actually restricts control measures at a national level, preventing member states from ensuring that work contracts and conditions adhere to the rules of the host country.

This could easily result in legal conflicts, say trade unions, as well as the undermining of fundamental workers’ rights, and most worryingly, an increase in forced labour, something which already affects 880,000 people in the EU.

Pierre Cuppens, the general secretary of Belgium’s construction workers union, told Euronews that too many workers already endure “slave-like working conditions fit for the Middle Ages” and that the directive must be strong enough to “regulate and to hold accountable the entire supply chain and be able to punish those taking advantage of the situation.”


Control instruments

Unions are calling for an “open list of control measures” for every member state, which would allow sufficient flexibility to respond to new forms of fraud and abuse.

This should also be combined with a minimum set of mandatory control instruments to be applied by all member states.

“There are posted workers who are paid as little as €5 to €10 per hour ‘in the black,’ sleeping in containers and trucks,” said Olivier Van Den Eynde of the Belgian trade union, ABVV/FTGB.

“The others take €20 per hour and they are also paying their taxes. This is not fair. Some of our politicians are aware of this problem. We ask for one contract for the whole Europe.”

Unions also want contractors to be held responsible for the non-payment of wages by any sub-contractors.

But the agreed text fails to take satisfactory measures to hold the main contractor responsible for any violations, as it imposes too many conditions.

In order for the compromise text to become EU legislation, the Council will head negotiations with the European Parliament before the European elections in May 2014.

According to Buelen, the Parliament’s more moderate position on the topic “is completely different” from the current Council compromise, so an agreement will be even more difficult to achieve.