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We can manage migration better – the EU is beginning to show us how

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The stage has been set for a significant reform of EU migration.

It shows that it’s possible to manage migration and stay in the single market, which was one of the key issues in the Brexit referendum campaign.

It’s all about a group called ‘posted workers’ – workers recruited in one EU country, but transferred by their employer to work in another, on rates of pay which may be far less than the going rate.

They’re covered by the EU Posted Workers Directive, but that hasn’t – especially in the UK – addressed concerns about the impact exploitation of migrant workers has on existing workforces.

Cases like Lindsey Oil Refinery, where construction workers protested about posted workers being used to undercut the usual rates of pay, are a potent example of what rightly concerns people about free movement.

French President Emmanuel Macron raised similar concerns during his election campaign in order to paint himself as a friend of working people, willing to address their worries about migration.

Now the EU is revising the Posted Workers Directive, which could be a small but really significant step towards managing migration better for everyone.

Who are the posted workers?

There are about two million posted workers around Europe, many in construction, agriculture and logistics, where exploitation is rife.

Not all of them are being taken advantage of in this way, but it’s not uncommon for unscrupulous employers to pay posted workers the minimum wage instead of the going rate for the job. And even though it’s illegal in the UK, some also deduct expenses relating to travel and accommodation, making these migrant workers even ‘cheaper’ to hire.

Despite the relatively low numbers of posted workers being exploited, the fight over the revision of the directive has been a fierce one. That shows that opponents of managing migration recognise just how important this issue is.

On one side are the unions (and politicians like President Macron) arguing for measures to protect local workers from a race to the bottom.

On the other, free marketeers and governments who want to use the lower wages paid in Eastern Europe as a competitive advantage, making their citizens more attractive to employers operating in countries with higher wages.

Revising the directive

Recently, both the European Parliament and employment ministers from the EU’s member states have adopted negotiating positions on the revision of the directive.

The European Parliament employment committee has adopted a report on the issue co-authored by a French conservative and a Dutch socialist MEP, which has now been adopted by the parliament as a whole.

That means they can now negotiate the revision with the European Council (the governments of the 28 current EU member states – including the UK at the moment) and the European Commission (known as ‘the trilogue’).

The report spelled out, among other things, that deductions for travel, board and lodging should be illegal, as they are in the UK (but not in the directive as it stands.)

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t go as far as requiring that posted workers should be paid the rate for the job required by company level collective agreements. It only refers to sectoral collective agreements which all employers must respect, of which there are fewer in the UK than in most EU countries

But that would still help a future government of the UK to manage migration better by encouraging collective agreements setting a level playing field for all employers in a particular sector: something the TUC is already pressing for.

Britain’s minister abstains

National employment ministers also reached an agreement on the proposed revision at a meeting in Brussels at the end of October.

Ahead of the meeting, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“This is a golden opportunity to get EU agreement on better protections for workers in Britain. The new rules would make it harder for dodgy bosses to undercut wages by exploiting migrant workers.

“It’s a test of Theresa May’s promise to enhance workers’ rights. She has the chance to support stronger protections for working people, and to manage migration better for Britain.”

Sadly, the UK government squandered an opportunity to show good faith on its promise to enhance workers’ rights, abstaining in the vote. The UK government’s attitude puts in serious doubt their commitment to protect workers’ rights after Brexit if they could not even bring themselves to support new EU rights while we are still member of the EU. 

Another test for Brexit Britain

The trilogue process to finalise the directive could be lengthy, and it might take three years for the revisions to be implemented nationally – after the UK is due to leave the European Union. But that doesn’t mean it won’t matter to us.

Firstly, if there is a transitional period after we leave the EU in March 2019, the UK might be required to comply with EU rules that come into effect during that period.

And if it takes longer than that, the TUC is calling for any future UK-EU relationship to require the UK to keep up with – or outdo - new workers’ rights that the EU is yet to adopt.

So the revision of the Posted Workers Directive isn’t just a test of whether the government is more interested in managing migration better or maintaining a supply of cheap labour.

It’s also a test of whether the government is serious about its promise to maintain and enhance workers’ rights.

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