Saturday, 31 January 2009
Wildcat strikes, the EU and UK labour law
The news is full of allegations of strikes against foreign workers. This is a misrepresentation of the facts, if not some of the sentiment expressed on placards that have quoted Gordon Brown's words in his 2007 speech to Labour Party conference, his first conference as Labour leader, where he uttered the phrase "British jobs for British workers".
EU law allows for the "free movement of labour". Many Britons of course work in the EU and have benefited from this provision. Likewise many skills shortages have been filled in the UK by EU workers. While many conceive of this on an individual basis of European workers able to seek work without discrimination across the continent, in fact there is the power for EU firms to export entire workforces across the continent.
Is this a socially progressive statute? I would argue not. A legal verdict in 2007 sanctioned the right of a company using foreign labour for work in another EU country without observing local pay rates. The right to free movement of labour in the EU is increasingly therefore a right for companies to freely move labour around the continent.
While companies have always relocated across the world to cut labour costs, now they also have the right to move labour across the world to reduce labour costs. This is a right for big business not people. The 2007 EU Court's decision in the Laval case allowed a Latvian company renovating schools in Sweden to bring in workers from Latvia and pay them at Latvian rates.
Of course no one has actually seen the terms and conditions of the Italian workers at the Total oil refinery in Lincolnshire, as the figures are "commercially confidential". But the suspicion is they are being paid less, which is probably why the Italian company won the contract.
While there is nothing progressive about sloganising "British jobs for British workers", there is nothing progressive either about the EU law in this matter.
As the left, we have to come up with a progressive solution that protects workers of the world. Neither the Gordon Brown parroting the BNP (from whom he stole the phrase) nor the EU offer us a solution.