Workers’ movement ‘blocked for political, not economic reasons’

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Member states lock workers from Central and Eastern Europe out of their labour markets, in spite of research which suggests that both sides would benefit from granting them access. In two reports, the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) questioned the rationality of these so-called transitional measures. In an exclusive interview with euractiv.com, ECAS Director Tony Venables explains the pros and cons of workers’ mobility in Europe. 

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Of the 15 old EU member states, Germany and Austria are the only ones which plan to keep the so-called transitional measures in place until at least 2009. What are the special dispositions in those countries? Are the motivations more on the economic or political 
side?

It’s essentially political. There isn’t a very strong economic justification; it doesn’t have very much to do with the overall numbers of people going into Germany and Austria. Those are quite high, actually – in the case of Germany about 500,000. It is more of a concern about social dumping and the black market. That makes it a real difficulty for the political parties to move on the issue. Austria, for example, has a quota system as well as a work-permit system, so it’s rather rigid. 

But what we do hope is that in the case of Austria and Germany they will at least go along with the countries which although they didn’t abandon the work-permit scheme for workers from the new member states at least made an effort to open up their labour market on a sectoral basis to make it more or less automatic to acquire work permits. That’s the case for example for the Benelux countries and for France. Eight out of 15 countries have done away with the transitional arrangements altogether, which is a real step in the right direction. Germany and Austria could at least follow those who are in the in-between zone.

 

Don’t rigid schemes such as are in place in Austria and Germany facilitate social dumping, by pushing workers into illegality, where their working conditions are a lot harder to be controlled?

We don’t see a clear correlation between whether a country has or has not transitional arrangements and the way workers are actually treated. Where employers that are faced with candidates of equal value from old member states and new member states have to go through the hassle of applying for a work permit, there is some evidence of course that they will hesitate to do so. This can encourage more activity on the black market. 

But our report didn’t find much evidence of people trying to get around the restrictions on access to the work place, for example by becoming self employed. It appears to be much more complicated than that. 

 

Can you give me an example?

What we do find everywhere is the following type of phenomenon, especially among low-skilled workers: they leave their country with a one-way ticket, 50 euro and a letter from an agency offering them maybe seasonal work and accommodation. They are not going to look at nice websites for the Year of Workers’ Mobility to check what their rights are. 

It is only afterward when they lose their job, when they are owed money by their employer, when they lose their accommodation, that they really get into difficulties. The answer that we are getting from people is that this form of exploitation is not something that should be dealt with by new laws. The laws already exist. There are applicable rights to equal treatment under EU law. You can’t pay people less than domestic workers. But also national law should apply. Labour inspectors should be sent in more to these situations. There is a consensus that there is a real problem that should be dealt with.

 

Does that mean that in the countries where the workers come from there should be more information on the risks and not just on the opportunities?

Absolutely. In our report, we are going towards a conclusion that in Europe on the whole we have a preference for short-time, temporary and short-distance migration. That is why we have been discussing among ourselves and with MEPs in Strasbourg the idea of circular migration. That includes that people will be much better informed before they leave. The services have to find the migrants, not vice versa, because it is the migrants that are moving. 

You have to get to people before they leave and you have to tell them of their rights, of certain things they have to do before they leave. For example if they are job seekers they have got to sort out their unemployment benefits in their country of origin. If they do not do that, they discover once they arrive that they should have acquired papers and forms before they left. And that’s where the trouble starts. 

 

Is there a simple solution?

The services in the country of origin ought to be linked to services in the host country. In the host country, more and more information is available in the languages of the migrant workers, but it’s not always reaching them. 

I think there’s a theme coming out of the Year of Workers’ Mobility that nobody has really considered which is the situation of people when they return home, which is often quite tricky. They tend to lose out on their professional experience; they suffer discrimination because they’ve been out of the country. That needs to be dealt with as well. 

So I think we’re looking for more of a sense of inter-connection among different services in the front line helping migrants across borders and probably, in the end, more emphasis on the structural funds on these issues.

 

The phenomenon of brain drain – where the best-educated workers are lured away from a country by better wages and a higher living standard elsewhere – has been much discussed. An even darker side of cross-border migration is the so-called brain waste, where workers are employed in the host country far below their qualification, coming back less educated than they were when they left. How important is this phenomenon?

It is very important. But I think that it is difficult to deal with if people are prepared to work below their level of qualification to get some money and experience in another country because they cannot find jobs in their own country at their level of experience. There’s nothing illegal about that, there’s no reason to penalise them or employers. All that can be done is to remind workers of their rights, such as the right to see your professional experience and qualifications recognised. This is not necessarily a situation that you have to accept, and in the long run it’s not the answer. It’s to do with the very short-term, rather speculative migratory patterns that we have in Europe.

 

Does the same phenomenon exist with migrants between the ‘old’ EU member states? 

It exists there too. Migration from the new member states follows a certain pattern; it covers from the bottom to the top of the economic scale very strongly. Within the 15 ‘old’ member states, you can still see the same young people moving around Europe, looking for casual jobs in other countries, perhaps continuing their studies, learning languages. I think what you’re getting from the new member states is probably more posted workers, more workers in the construction industry, filling jobs that we don’t want to fill in the old member states. 

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