After a year of stalled negotiations, fresh changes to draft rules affecting workers temporarily sent to other EU countries are further deepening rifts between eastern and western member states.
A new compromise draft from Malta, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, has caused outrage among some eastern EU countries.
A group of countries including Poland, Romania and Hungary has fiercely opposed any legal changes to 21-year-old posted workers rules and called western EU member states protectionist for pushing measures to raise pay for workers from lower wage countries.
The European Commission proposed the overhaul one year ago and vetoed ‘yellow cards’ from 11 countries that tried to block the changes last summer on grounds that it would harm the internal market.
The rules allow workers to be sent temporarily to another EU country but still pay social contributions in their home countries.
New changes to the draft bill have only stirred tensions between some member states.
Transport workers are explicitly pulled under the rules, according to Malta’s compromise bill, which was circulated to EU diplomats this week and seen by euractiv.com.
That measure has upset opposing countries that argue it is too hard to apply national employment law to truck drivers who pass through a country.
Employers who send workers to other EU countries will also have to make sure their workers’ accommodation meets local standard conditions, under changes inserted into Malta’s proposal.
National authorities in countries hosting the posted workers “should” check on housing situations. Employers outside the country will be responsible if conditions are bad.
France has been one of the most outspoken countries pushing for legal change, citing a boom in low-wage workers coming to western EU countries since the law was passed in 1996.
After Germany, France hosts the second highest number of temporarily posted workers in the EU. The number of posted workers in Germany mushroomed by 67.5% between 2010 and 2015.
Diplomats are in for another tense debate when they meet to discuss the Maltese proposal next Monday (27 March). If countries are still divided after that, diplomats said they might hand over the talks to ambassadors, signalling that political input is needed to finally end the deadlock.
The Maltese Council presidency has insisted it wants to strike an agreement between the diplomats from all EU countries by June. After that, national diplomats will have to negotiate a compromise with the European Parliament and Commission before the law is passed.
Negotiations on the controversial file have also been slow in the European Parliament, where MEPs in the Employment Committee debated amendments to the bill yesterday.
But diplomats said they are ready to put the Maltese draft to a vote in Council as soon as a majority supports the text. If a compromise between all 28 countries cannot be reached, the bill can still pass through Council as long as a qualified majority of diplomats from at least 16 countries making up 65% of the total EU population vote in favour.
One diplomat said the group of countries strongly opposing the bill will “never vote in favour”. The Maltese presidency is already weighing how much support it has for the vote, several diplomats told EURACTIV.
“It will not be at all costs that we will try to get a general approach [compromise],” a Maltese diplomat said at a Brussels conference last week.
Remuneration in question
One hotly debated point still dividing countries is remuneration. Some diplomats say the term is too vague and could force employers to pay a range of fees, in addition to wages, if they are required by the country where workers are sent temporarily.
Remuneration is left up to national law in countries “to whose territory the worker is posted”, according to the Maltese draft compromise. The Commission’s proposal from last year used the term remuneration, replacing language on “minimum rates of pay” from the 1996 directive. Some diplomats from countries opposed to the proposal are protesting that the renaming could mean employers will have to pay a huge amount of fees that vary widely from country to country.
As a possible vote in Council approaches, countries in favour of the proposal are trying to convince diplomats that could still swing the decision.
Maltese diplomats are considering changes to their draft that could help win over countries that are undecided on the bill. Ireland, Spain and Portugal want measures on subcontracted workers who are posted to other countries to be taken out of the draft.
“We’re trying to expand as much as possible the base of support,” said one diplomat from a country in favour of the legislation. Removing subcontracting from the text would be one way to do that, the source said.
The countries that have most vocally supported tightening rules on posted workers want the Maltese draft to pass, even though they have not gotten everything they wanted.
Diplomats rejected a French amendment to crack down on so-called letterbox companies that use addresses in lower wage EU countries to underpay workers. A French diplomat said France will keep pushing for measures on letterbox companies to be included in the draft bill before it goes to a vote in Council—or becomes part of a compromise agreement.