Mayday marks freedom of movement

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As of 1 May 2011, citizens of the countries that joined the European Union in 2004 will finally have the right to live and work in all the bloc's member states. László Andor, the EU's employment commissioner, explains why workers' mobility is part of the solution to Europe's unemployment problem.

This commentary was sent to EurActiv by László Andor, the EU's commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion.

"1 May has long been associated with the celebration of labour. Labour Day commemorates the struggles and victories of workers worldwide for improved working conditions. In the grim economic and social climate much of Europe is experiencing today, this is even more relevant.

1 May also marks the seventh anniversary of the EU's biggest enlargement ever and 2011 sees the removal of some of the very last remaining obstacles to the free movement of workers. As from 1 May, the possibility for EU-15 countries to restrict workers from the EU-8 that joined the EU in 2004 will come to an end. Workers from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will now be free to find a job in most member states. This is good news.

Back in 2004, the restrictions soured enlargement for many in the EU-8 as fears spread in the EU-15 that an open European market would threaten wages and jobs if workers from countries like Poland or the Czech Republic were allowed to take up employment.

But reports carried out by the European Commission in 2006 and 2008 showed that migration flows from east to west have been overwhelmingly positive for the EU-15, especially in countries that opened their doors without any restrictions.

Incoming workers did not displace indigenous labour. In fact, these new workers filled gaps in the market. They did not exacerbate unemployment and they did not weigh heavily on social services. Nationals from the 'newer' member states account for only around 0.7% of the working-age population in the 'older' member countries.  

Open labour markets have also helped to reduce undeclared work and the fear of social dumping has not materialised either. Local workers' wages from 2003-2007 continued to rise in both the countries of departure and those of destination. What is clear from experience is that people go to where jobs are. Cross-border labour mobility is self-regulating and decreases in times of economic downturns.

But the peeling back of restrictions in 2011's climate of crisis can also create mixed feelings. As more and more citizens battle each month to make ends meet, calls for protectionism resonate more strongly. And although all countries must now open their job markets for the EU-8, Romania and Bulgaria may still have to wait until December 2013.

The financial crisis has been a test for social Europe. Despite the turmoil, the European Union set ambitious objectives last year within the Europe 2020 strategy for boosting the number and quality of jobs, and fighting poverty.

But recovery is fragile, the demand for labour has not increased significantly, and the uncertainties associated with the euro area crisis discourage investment. Young people find it particularly hard to find their first job, and older workers face the challenge of remaining on the labour market longer.

Yet, mobility is part of the solution to European unemployment. This is the key consideration behind the EU flagship initiative Youth on the Move. We also need to see what needs to be done to manage mobility, for the best outcome, in the countries of origin and destination.

In the countries of origin, efforts have to be made and strategies need to be developed to ensure that mobility functions as a two-way street. There is a need to assess the potential risk of labour outflow, especially among medical or ICT professionals.

The movement of skilled labour should be circular, so that workers bring back valuable knowledge and experience which can later help develop the local economy and society.

To help avoid disturbances, it is also important to strengthen the social dialogue in the newer member states of the EU, and develop the best employment policies through the involvement of all stakeholders.

While there is still some unease in some countries of destination about the 'influx' of workers, here we already need to prepare for skills shortages in various sectors and professions (engineers, master craftsmen, doctors, etc.).

The European Commission can work together with the member states to improve the 'search and match' capacity of our employment services. The recent debates about mobility also highlighted that the minimum wage can be a good instrument also in countries where it has not been institutionalised. And, if the next period brings positive experiences, the deadlines for Romania and Bulgaria can also be reconsidered.

On Labour Day, we should highlight that the possibility to work and study in another member state is at the cornerstone of the European Union. It is a fundamental right and freedom, which also contributes to the fight against unemployment. If we are, collectively, going to reach our 75% employment target by 2020, we have to take up every chance we have."

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