‘Polish plumber’ turned out to be French hoax

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The spectrum of the ‘Polish plumber’, which haunted the French referendum campaign on the European Constitution in 2005, is a hoax of political history, as the predicted flood of Eastern workers in France never happened. EURACTIV France reports.

In fact, France suffers from a deep statistical deficit regarding its foreign labour force, which prohibits any reliable assessment of the number of Eastern workers on its soil. 

Indeed, for census purposes the country only relies on residence permits issued bearing the mention ‘workers’. 

As a result, EU citizens who leave their country of origin to unite with their families in France may not be recorded as foreign workers, even if their residence permit issued for family purposes allows them to carry out professional activities. 

The Eurostat statistics on the French case are also to be treated with caution, however, as the European body does not possess data about many workers from the East. In the case of Poland, 15,000 people from the country were recorded in France in 2005 against 14,000 in 2007. The tendency is therefore towards stability, if not a slight decrease. 

Comparing France to the UK shows that the latter remains a much more popular destination for migrant workers. In 2005, 88,000 Poles went to work overseas. In 2008, their total number amounted to 370,000. Since 2004, the UK has reportedly received 500,000 Eastern workers. On this basis, France lags far behind in terms of migrant workers’ flow. 

The implementation by the French government of rules restricting Eastern workers’ mobility may account for the broad gap between France and Great Britain. In March 2006, Paris encouraged a “progressive and controlled lifting of restrictions”. As a result, the French labour market opened up to Eastern workers to make up for labour shortages in fields such as medical care, catering, transport and construction. 

Brussels allowed France to maintain administrative restrictions up to 2011, but the moratorium was shortened. Since 1 July 2008, workers from Eastern countries which joined the EU in 2004 have been granted free access to the labour market. 

This ‘gesture’ can also be explained by circumstances, as France took office as president of the EU that year (euractiv.fr 30/05/08

“France back-pedalled by lifting restrictions in 2008 instead of 2011, but I am not sure whether the government would dare to take this measure again today,” explains Jacques Barou, research fellow at the Institute of Political Science in Grenoble. 

“France has been crippled by unemployment for many years and limitations to workers’ free mobility are a determining factor to maintain social peace,” he added. 

As for Bulgarian and Romanian workers, France is expected to abandon all labour restrictions on 31 December 2011. Up to this deadline, migrant workers could benefit from accelerated proceedings to obtain work permits if they fit into one of the 62 professions for which France lacks labour. In the early 2008, the ‘unwanted job’ list was extended to 150 fields of work. 

During the referendum campaign over the European Constitution in France, the 'Polish plumber' figure embodied popular fears about Eastern workers causing wage havoc on the labour market. 

The argument did not stem directly from the constitutional project but from the Bolkenstein Directive on detachment of workers. The confusion was nevertheless deep enough to lead to a mass rejection of the European constitution. 

When Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia joined the EU on 1 May 2004, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden opened their labour markets to newcomers. 

Greece, Finland, Italy, Spain and Portugal lifted their restrictions on these countries in 2006, Luxembourg and the Netherlands did so in 2007, France in 2008, and Belgium and Denmark on 1 May 2009. 

Austria and Germany kept the restrictions in place after May 2009, leading the Czech EU Presidency to criticise Vienna and Berlin for what they called an "unjustified" decision to maintain labour restrictions five years after the 2004 enlargement wave. 

The European Court of Justice recently ruled against Paris in a case where lawyers, medics and dentists from Bulgaria and Romania were unlawfully denied access to the French labour market (EURACTIV 11/02/09). 

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