Senate supports services law as SP votes against

11 November 2009

Senate supports services law as SP votes against

The Dutch Senate this week lent its approval to the new Law on Services. The law will transpose the European Union's Directive on Services, approved in 2006 by the European Parliament, into Dutch national legislation. The SP, the biggest opposition party in both chambers of parliament, was the only political group to vote against. “Fortunately a great deal of effort has gone into a struggle to make progress against the worst aspects of this measure," said SP Senator Tuur Elzinga, "but there remains for us far too much which is uncertain for there to be any question of our voting in favour."

Tuur ElzingaThe Services Directive, known also as the ‘Bolkestein Directive’ after its instigator, former Dutch Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, an ultra-Thatcherite member of the 'free market liberal' VVD, was the subject of years of dogged struggle. Bolkestein's aim was to liberalise the European services market, subjecting firms based in one member state but operating in another only to the laws and regulations of their country of origin. This 'country-of-origin principle' would lead to a situation in which unfair competition, based on forcing down conditions of employment, could occur. If a plumber from Hungary or Romania were to offer services in the Netherlands, for instance, and the conditions of employment in Hungary or Romania were applied, Dutch plumbers would be undercut. This would lead to a 'race to the bottom'. This would apply not only to labour laws, but also to environmental protection. In the Netherlands, therefore, the SP has worked with the two centre-left parties, Labour (PvdA) and the Green Left, as well as with trade unions, to resist this ultra-neoliberal directive for as long as possible. At European level, too, there has been sustained action. In Brussels and Strasbourg large demonstrations were held, and these met with some success. The controversial 'country-of-origin principle' was scrapped, while many publicly-owned or part publicly-owned services were exempted. Workers will continue in the future to enjoy protection when employed outside their own member state under the previously existing Posting of Workers Directive, which offers a greater measure of security.

SP Senator Tuur Elzinga used this week's debate with economics and justice ministers to list the gains won in the struggle against the directive, a campaign in which he was closely involved. "A lot has been achieved, and as progressive political parties and trade unions we must claim responsibility for that," Senator Elzinga said. "But since then it has emerged that the Posting of Workers Directive provides less protection than was promised. A number of recent rulings from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg are extremely worrying.” For these reasons Elzinga is calling on the government to make every effort at European Union level to defend conditions of employment and fundamental trade union rights.

The European trade union movement has sounded the alarm about these same European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings, in which freedom of establishment of businesses and freedom to provide services have repeatedly been accorded greater importance than have national regulations for the defence of conditions of employment or fundamental trade union rights, such as the right to strike or take collective action. The SP Senator also asked the government, therefore, whether it shared his concerns over the protection of workers in the EU and whether it acknowledges that fundamental social rights may not be subordinated to economic freedoms. In addition, he asked government ministers to make every effort to ensure an interpretation of the Posting of Workers Directive more in keeping with social values. Economics Minister Maria Van der Hoeven emphasised in response that even in the Services Directive social protection must be guaranteed while Social Affairs Minister Piet Donner assured Senator Elzinga that he would be asking for clarification of the precise nature of the protection available to employees under the Posting of Workers Directive.

“That's also a gain," Elzinga conceded, "but not sufficient to persuade us to say 'yes' to this Law on Services. For that, far too much remains uncertain."

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