News Article

The free movement of workers and social Europe: maintaining the European ideal

By Jimmy Donaghey and Paul Teague, Industrial Relations Journal 37:6

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Free movement of workers is one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by EU law. Citizens of the EU have the right to work in another Member State and the right to reside there for that purpose. In addition, they also have the right to equal treatment in respect of access to employment and working conditions. For their part, each Member State is required to facilitate the full domestic integration of a worker and his/her family from another Member State. An open labour market allowing people to live and work in the Member State of their choice has been regarded as one of the most attractive and civilised features of the EU. In fact, since its inception in 1957 until the late 1990s, much of the discussion about labour mobility in the EU bemoaned how little movement was actually taking place. Different languages, the lack of mutual recognition of educational qualifications and the persistence of national labour market restrictive practices were usually identified as the main barriers preventing workers moving from one Member State to another. Thus, labour mobility was seen as one of the unfulfilled promises of the EU.

Recent developments have turned the discussion of labour mobility on its head. Instead of lamenting the low levels of labour migration between the Member States,much of the current talk is about a perceived massive increase in pan-national labour flows inside the EU and the potential negative impact this might have on national social standards and even on national political and communal identities (Geddes, 2003). The enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 Member States is the main reason why labour mobility is being viewed as much a threat as a promise. Workers from new Member States are seen as generating social tensions when moving to jobs in the ‘old’ Member States (Zimmermann, 2005). Migration from non-EU countries is only fuelling anxieties and fears.

Most of the ‘old’ 15 Member States have adopted an ambivalent approach to labour migration from the new Member States. Although obliged by EU law not to place restrictions on workers moving from other Member States and, even though they may benefit economically from an influx of new workers because of demographic factors such as the ageing of the population and the fall in birth rates, many of these countries have moved to limit the numbers entering their domestic labour markets. Member States are concerned that labour mobility from the east will stir up ethnic and social divisions. But questions can be raised about the appropriateness of this policy stance. Are these essentially solipsistic policies not working against the ideals of a European identity and European citizenship? Is the threat of social dumping based on job displacement within national boundaries overplayed? Would an approach that combines a commitment to labour market openness and labour standards not chime more with the acquis communautaire of the EU?

This article assesses these issues by examining the industrial relations implications of the increase of east European migration triggered by EU enlargement. It is organised as follows. The first section outlines the transitional arrangements that have been agreed for labour market integration in the wake of enlargement. Next an assessment is made of the scale of labour migration from the new to the old Member States. The following section examines the debate about labour migration and social dumping. After this assessment, some of the high-profile industrial relations disputes that relate to wage dumping and job displacement are set out and reviewed. The penultimate section makes the case for greater policy focus on the issue of labour standard setting at all levels within the EU. The conclusions bring together the arguments developed in the article....

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