Bulgarians, Romanians protest UK closed door

The governments of Romania and Bulgaria have reacted harshly to the UK’s and Ireland’s announcement that workers from the Balkan countries will be denied access to British and Irish labour markets which other EU citizens enjoy.

On 24 October 2006, the UK Home Secretary, John Reid, announced his government’s decision to restrict access of workers from Bulgaria and Romania to jobs in the UK. Exceptions will be put in place for a small group of highly-skilled people and 20,000 workers in food processing and agricultural, on a seasonal basis. 

At the same time, the Irish cabinet took a decision to completely lock Bulgarians and Romanians out of the country’s labour market, without any exceptions.

Unsurprisingly, Germany also announced its decision to curb worker migration from the two countries. 

Under EU rules, Bulgarians and Romanians will still be free to go to member states as tourists and to work there as self-employed. 

UK Home Secretary John Reid said: "Over the years Europe has prospered by letting people move and trade freely. But as the EU expands this poses new challenges which have to be managed properly. Here, as elsewhere, managed migration is the right approach. In 2004 when 10 new countries joined the EU, we gave their people access to our labour market. But the Workers Registration Scheme ensured people came to work and not claim benefits. This has been a success. Workers from the new member states have filled skills gaps, including in key public services such as the NHS and social care, and have contributed to UK growth and prosperity. Studies have found no evidence they have taken jobs away from British workers or undercut wages. [...] 

The UK will maintain controls on Romania and Bulgaria's access to jobs for a transitional period. The opening of our labour market will take account of the needs of our labour market [...] and the positions adopted by other member states. Furthermore, we will expect employers to look exclusively to workers from EU nations to meet any low-skilled labour shortages within the UK. We can therefore announce today that from 1 January 2007 we will be phasing out all low-skilled migration schemes for workers from outside the EU."

The Irish Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Micheál Martin, told the Irish Times  that his Government's decision was justified because of the foreign workers now employed here. "The numbers have been extraordinary. This is one of the most rapid inward migrations ever experienced by any country. Other countries have taken 30 or 40 years to reach that point. This has created pressures in education, with housing, with traffic, with the health service. The challenge now is integration."

A spokesman for Bulgarian Foreign Ministry Dimitar Tsanchev said: "That kind of decision is a part of the prerogatives of the national governments, according to the Accession Treaty, but we consider that with such restrictions the rights of the Bulgarian workers will be harmed while it’s not the case of the 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004. All the analysis in Bulgaria show that there is no reason to expect a massive emigration from Bulgaria to UK after the 1st of January 2007. We do understand the apprehensions of the British side concerning the migration of workers, but we stay convinced that the question couldn’t be resolved by means of restrictions. Bulgaria will consider eventual reciprocity measures towards Great Britain and any other EU-country that would impose restrictions on the Bulgarian workers."

The Romanian Prime Minister, Calin Tariceanu, said his government "did everything it could to prevent this measure", which would "cultivate misgivings about the European Union".

David Davis, shadow home secretary with the British Conservative Party, said: "This statement is more notable by what it doesn't say and what it doesn't answer." He recalled that "in principle" the Tories had called for limits on working rights "some two months ago", adding: "Where is the detail?" He said Reid had "merely slipped out a limited written statement designed to deal with tomorrow's headlines but which leaves several important questions unanswered".

Nick Clegg, home affairs spokesman with the Liberal Democrats  said the scheme was "asking a lot in terms of enforcement from an immigration and nationality directorate which Mr Reid has branded unfit for purpose". He added that discriminating against low skilled migrants could create a black market and that the UK government should have done much more to persuade southern Europe to "take their fair share of workers before deciding on this stop-gap system that is unlikely to prove workable".

Brendan Barber, General Secretary with the UK Trade Union Confederation (TUC), said: "Today's announcement runs the risk of having the opposite effect of that which is intended. This is because the UK Government cannot stop the free movement of new EU citizens, nor can it prevent them working as self-employed once they are here. Bogus self-employment and cash-in-hand jobs are two of the commonest ways that workers are exploited in the UK. [...] The right response to EU enlargement is properly enforced rights that prevent the exploitation of anyone working in the UK, not measures that are more likely to increase the bad treatment of workers."

The Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) director of HR policy, Susan Anderson, welcomed the restrictions: "Migrant labour is vital to the UK. Recent migrant workers from central Europe have brought with them much-needed skills and hard work, to the benefit of our economy. The number of these workers coming to the UK has far exceeded expectations, though, so it is right to take a measured approach and apply temporary restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria."

John Walker, EU affairs chairman with the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), slammed the plans, arguing they would "create a mess and employers will be caught in the middle of it". He added: "Businesses will not accept being asked to become pseudo-immigration officers. After treating the previous new entrants in one way, which was clear for all to deal with, the differing treatment for Bulgarian and Romanian workers is unfair to them and to small businesses."


When the EU welcomed ten new member states in May 2004, Britain and Ireland were, along with Sweden, the only countries to grant unlimited access to their labour markets to the citizens of eight central and eastern European countries (no restrictions apply for Maltese and Cypriot nationals). 

Several reports found that the countries who opened their labour markets benefited economically from the decision, even though the number of migrating workers was highly underestimated prior to enlargement, with an estimated 450,000 to 600,000 workers coming to the UK instead of the expected 13,000 to 18,000. 

In the two and a half years since, five more countries have opened their labour markets completely; five others have introduced schemes to open them gradually, leaving Germany and Austria as the only countries which deny their eastern neighbours access to their job markets.

The question arose at new with respect to Bulgaria and Romania joining the EU in January 2007. Many member states, including some that joined the EU in 2004, watch the British decision closely and may be reciprocating it.

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