Tony Burke writes about the fear of the unions over the EU's attempts to undermine employment rights
The TUC has warned the EU commissioner for employment and social affairs, Laszlo Andor, not to undermine the employment rights of workers in the face of austerity programmes being driven through the EU, writes Tony Burke.
Trade unions are becoming increasingly concerned that, using ‘austerity’ as cover, proposals are surfacing in the EU which weaken hard won employment rights, and that some countries are using the economic crisis to dismantle national collective bargaining arrangements.
The TUC told Andor that the European Commission needs to strike a ‘fair balance between business and unions’ over how far Europe should decide national industrial relations laws.
In a joint pamphlet Single Market, Equal Rights?, published by the TUC and the Foreign Policy Centre there is a stark warning that the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) cases and the Eurozone crisis has left the EU unbalanced, with common rights and systems working for business but ‘inconsistent’ rules on workers’ rights.
This has led many unions who have supported a pro-EU policy to begin to question whether they can do so in the future.
The most recent development has been the outright rejection by the European TUC of the new treaty being proposed by chancellor Merkel and president Sarkozy.
Not only is the treaty being rejected, unions are frustrated at the lack of any real progress to change the European Court of Justice decisions (the infamous Viking, Laval, Ruffert and Luxembourg) related to the posted workers directive, which have created major problems in the UK over the use of EU labour being employed at rates of pay much lower than nationally agreed rates of pay in industries such as construction.
The working time directive is a major piece of health and safety legislation, yet some countries are now lining up behind the UK in wanting to extend the opt-out from the directive’s main provision – that of limiting the length of time workers can be allowed to work to protect their health.
There is also concern at the way that the agency and temporary workers directive has been introduced. This is particularly true in the UK, where regulation 10, the so-called ‘Swedish derogation’, is being used to force workers to sign minimum hours contracts with agencies as a way of getting round the main provision of the directive – equal pay with permanent workers.
Many right wing little Englanders are pressing David Cameron to take a tough eurosceptic line and are calling for the ‘repatriation of powers’ from Brussels to Westminster.
The pamphlet argues that the UK would be unable to pull out of employment laws without leaving the EU. Once outside the UK would be isolated, but still forced to do what the rest of Europe decides – but without any say – a fear not only voiced by unions but also by manufacturing companies as well – although few are prepared to say so publically.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, at a launch of the pamphlet last week, said:
If ordinary Europeans feel that the EU is about little more than open markets, tight controls on public spending and privatisation, then support for European integration will collapse just as surely as night follows day. A Europe without a strong social dimension is doomed to fail.
Europe has historically balanced the interests of free trade and open markets with those of workers and their unions. It’s a bargain that has served the continent well for decades. And it’s one that we abandon at our peril.
The pamphlet also argues strongly for unions to resist not only the weakening of EU wide employment rights but to go on the offensive.
This can be done by opposing the ‘race to the bottom’ in labour standards which will not drive growth;
for unions to use the current legislation (notably in the UK) on information and consultation and European works councils to improve workplace consultation; and
an extension of collective bargaining through co-ordinated action across Europe to boost purchasing power, generate demand and reduce income inequality.
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• Obama puts manufacturing top of the agenda – time for Cameron to do the same? – Tony Burke, January 27th 2012
• What has Europe ever done for us? Well… – Tony Burke, November 5th 2011
• Exposé of Daniel Hannan’s “Ten reasons to leave the EU” – Shamik Das, December 22nd 2009
• The problems with Cameron’s new EU policy – Will Straw, November 4th 2009
• What’s the EU ever done for us? – Will Straw, November 12th 2009