by Brian Denny
Austerity has become a catch-all EU policy for emasculating trade unions, imposing zero-hours contracts and mass casualisation of labour. It is time to give it the elbow.
It is very unlikely that those in the labour movement that currently support Britain’s membership of the European Union will be claiming that the infamous “Social Europe” agenda can protect workers from Tory attacks including its vicious Trade Union Bill.
That is largely because “Social Europe” has finally succumbed and died a very quiet and strange death.
The EU is now imposing zero-hours contracts, casualisation and poverty pay as well as smashing up collective bargaining across Europe as part of its structural adjustment programme known as austerity.
Even the European TUC, which interestingly campaigned recently for a Yes vote in the Greek referendum for more austerity, openly admits that “cuts in salaries, cuts in public services and weakening collective bargaining rights are all on the agenda.”
Obviously the alleged benefits of “social Europe” have failed to materialise as over one million British manufacturing jobs have disappeared since 1997 alone. In Germany, the number of jobless has passed five million and French unemployment has ballooned.
Greek unemployment has reached catastrophic levels and the country faces a future of permanent austerity with little or no workers’ rights.
It has been estimated that over a million people in Britain are now on zero-hours contracts, which allow employers to use and abuse workers without any obligation to even guarantee minimum working hours.
But the increasing use of agency workers simply reflects the EU’s neoliberal employment model which promotes labour market “flexibility,” while allegedly providing minimum protections to soften the blow, so-called “flexicurity” — the made-up word by which this model is sold.
Humpty-Dumpty would have been proud of such gobbledegook.
This agenda openly calls for wages to reflect productivity, which means cutting wages even further allegedly to compete with the “core” high-investment economies of France and Germany.
This has sparked unprecedented levels of unemployment, particularly in so-called “peripheral” countries such as Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and the Baltic states.
The fact that wholesale suspension of trade union collective bargaining is a condition of EU “bailouts” — ie where EU taxpayers’ money is handed directly to EU banks that actually own the debt — also demonstrates that trade union rights are an obstacle to EU plans for restructuring labour markets, not an aspiration.
The European Commission, IMF and the European Central Bank now directly intervene in national wage negotiations in Ireland, Greece and Romania in order to weaken collective bargaining. And it’s working — for instance previously in Romania 98 per cent of workers were covered by collective agreements; today that figure is around 20 per cent.
So why hasn’t the much-lauded European Union Agency Work Regulations (AWR) defended vulnerable workers?
Well, mainly because the overwhelming effect — and point — of the AWR is actually to normalise and institutionalise casualised labour.
Moreover while the regulations are meant to ensure agency workers enjoy the same basic pay and conditions as permanent workers, any such rights only kick in after 12 weeks on the same temporary assignment.
And as if that is not enough there is a “flat-pack” solution for employers to avoid the AWR altogether — the so-called infamous “Swedish derogation,” which is being used aggressively by agencies and users of agency work to keep down pay.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has said: “Swedish derogation contracts are just one more example of a new growing type of employment that offers no job security, poor career progression and often low pay.”
The EU directive even demands that member states end “unjustified” or “disproportionate” restrictions on agency work such as the ban on agency workers in the public sector in France and Spain.
The ethereal nature of the so-called “Social Europe” agenda is underlined by the fact much of this legislation is “soft law,” ie there is little policing of such policies. For instance no member state has ever been prosecuted for not implementing the Working Time Directive.
A number of rulings by the European Court of Justice also highlight just how the EU single market batters down minimum trade union standards won at a national level.
Moreover EU rules demanding the complete free movement of capital, goods, services and labour have had a profound impact on all trade unions operating within the EU.
Following the accession of eastern European states to the EU, migrant labour has been rapidly moving west while capital and manufacturing jobs are moving east.
While western European countries have been experiencing a large influx of migrant labour, eastern European states are suffering population falls and an inevitable brain drain, leading to a loss of skilled labour and young people as well as an uncertain future of that classic imperialist outcome — underdevelopment.
In more developed member states, wages have been under pressure in a process known as “social dumping,” as cheap foreign labour replaces the indigenous workforce and trade union bargaining power is severely weakened.
Even the pro-EU Irish Congress of Trade Unions is demanding measures to protect unskilled workers where social dumping is threatening jobs.
“It is an iron law of economics that an abundant supply of labour pushes down its cost. It is insulting people’s intelligence to pretend otherwise,” it said in a statement.
The ludicrous promises of “Social Europe” made 30 years ago are being replaced by the realities of “anti-social Europe” with attacks on workers’ rights across Europe driven by EU institutions.
Ultimately, destroying the concept of a permanent job with rights and replacing it with precarious employment while exploiting a reserve army of cheap labour is the core structural adjustment strategy of the EU.
It’s time to face up to the fact that “Social Europe” was just the sleeping gas used to put a generation of trade unionists in slumber and it’s time to wake up. Vote against anti-social Europe, vote to get out.
This previously appeared in the Morning Star, Britain’s only socialist daily newspaper