Restrictions on free movement of workers from new member states: European Parliament votes in favour of instantaneous abolition

5 April 2006

Restrictions on free movement of workers from new member states: European Parliament votes in favour of instantaneous abolition

If it were up to the majority in the European Parliament, all restrictions on the free movement of workers from any member state would be immediately abolished. SP Euro-MP Erik Meijer opposed the resolution carried today at the EP's plenary in Strasbourg on the grounds that it was premature. "The limited right of entry to the labour market that exists is already leading to difficulties, to the closing down of whole sectors including road haulage and pressure on the principle of equal pay for equal work,” he explained.

The Netherlands is one of the member states which has chosen to impose a transitional phase on the introduction of free access to its labour market for workers from the new EU member states of central and eastern Europe. A decision must be taken by 1st May regarding a possible prolongation of this period. The Dutch government has already announced that it wishes to introduce complete freedom of movement on 1st January, 2007, but this remains to be debated by our national Parliament, which will consider it on 12th April. The main trade union federation, the FNV, has already announced that it finds the measures proposed to guard against displacement, disruption of the labour market and exploitation unsatisfactory. Germany and Austria, moreover, are to maintain their restrictions after that date.

Describing the debate in Strasbourg as "one-sided, with the European Parliament applause machine operating at its peak" Erik Meijer said that EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla, who addressed the assembled MEPs before the debate and vote, was rejoicing. "In his speech Mr Spidla discussed in a very one-sided fashion the supposed advantages of free movement of workers and an open European labour market: increased employment opportunities, higher economic growth, the tackling of illegal working and, best of all, that it is good for the Lisbon Agenda, the process which is supposed to make the EU economy the world's most competitive by 2010. He offered no evidence to support these assertions, however, as was the case also with the European Commission's report on the consequences for the labour market of the admission of new member states for the period 2004-2005, which is not adequately backed up by hard statistics or other data.".

Jan de Wit, a Member of the Dutch national Parliament for the SP, has shown that the number of workers who have already entered the Netherlands from the new member states is in fact as high as 100,000, rather than the 29,000 given in the Commission's report. Spidla was, nevertheless, supported by the centre-right Christian Democrat "European People's Party" and Liberals, with Dutch Christian Democrat Rita Oomen-Ruijten arguing that the Netherlands should immediately remove all restrictions, although this opinion is not shared by her party colleagues back home. The Green group and the United Left, the parliamentary group in which the SP participates, presented resolutions demanding action against the abuse of free movement by employers, but these were voted down.

“The SP is in favour of the principle of freedom of movement for workers, but we do not want to see the Netherlands becoming Europe's social dumping ground," Mr Meijer said. "The transitional period must therefore be prolonged by two years, during which the Dutch government must give guarantees that abuse of social rights will be tackled in an effective manner by strict controls on wages and conditions of employment. If we do not maintain the principle of equal wages for equal work, this will lead to unfair competition and a downward spiral into ever worsening working conditions and labour rights."

Research conducted by the SP in the Netherlands has revealed that the influx of workers from the new EU member states is already leading to disruption of the labour market, unfair competition for small businesses and self-employed people and exploitation of cheap labour through poor living and working conditions and wages which can be under €3 per hour. Labour can cost so little that Dutch workers cannot hope to compete. Many Dutch truck drivers are simply being replaced by Polish truckers, while building contractors are also having to cope with unfair competition from central and eastern European firms who bring in their own labour. Workers from these countries are being used to drive down wages. No wonder that the Christian Democrats and Liberals are cheering – it's certainly nothing to do with solidarity with eastern European workers. A further problem resulting from this is that in Poland and its neighbours there is now a major shortage of qualified tradespeople, who prefer to work in the Netherlands.

The SP is no supporter of the neoliberal free market, or this neoliberal version of free movement. The matter has been treated in an upside-down fashion by the European Parliament. Because workers from central and eastern Europe are being brought illegally into the Netherlands and then exploitatively employed on very low wages, the borders should be opened completely. As Erik Meijer points out, this would be "a reward for criminal behaviour and permission to evade labour laws and carry on with the exploitation." It's time that the Dutch government did what it is elected to do and ensured that the laws are enforced by proper controls, including European legislation such as the directive governing the posting of workers to other member states. The interests of workers from Poland or indeed Portugal are not served by a situation which allows them to be employed in the Netherlands for a few euros an hour to do filthy work. Tackling this would be real solidarity.

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