Business and unions call for ‘open’ EU

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As the French Presidency prepares proposals for a comprehensive, Europe-wide approach to labour immigration, European businesses and trade unions at the 2008 Employment Week called on the EU not to present a “xenophobic” face to the rest of the world. 

As globalisation and demographic change put increasing pressure on Europe’s labour markets, the issues of immigration into the EU and workers’ mobility within the bloc topped the agenda of Employment Week 2008

Sverker Rudeberg, the chairman of Businesseurope's Immigration Working Group, did away with the popular notion that immigration of third-country nationals jeopardises the employment of the local workforce. He stressed that employers seek new workers within widening concentric circles, exaplining how if they cannot find a worker to fill in a vacancy locally, they first look regionally, then nationally, Europe-wide and eventually worldwide. 

Thus Rudeberg said he wants a signal to be sent out to third countries that the European Union is not xenophobic. He argued that legal immigration possibilities can help fight illegal immigration, which is what follows when the demands of the local labour market cannot be met legally. But "businesses prefer not to have undocumented migrants," Rudeberg said. 

He concluded: "To prosper in the future, we must have an adequate system to manage migration," expressing his indignation that there is still no framework for legal immigration at European level and that immigrant workers who want to move from one country to another, for example within a transnational European company, face major difficulties.  

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)'s confederal secretary, Catalene Passchier, highlighted the responsibility of governments who, as she said, often exploit dormant fears of migrant workers for populist policies. She said it is thus important for trade unions to take a clear position: "We don't believe in closed borders. We don't believe that closing borders protects workers."

Passchier referred to ongoing discussions with respect to the EU Blue Card, where there is a tendency to favour temporary or 'circular' migration over permanent immigration. She stated: "Temporary migration cannot replace permanent immigration. It will always be less attractive for some workers." 

Addressing the French Presidency and its initiative to foster high-skilled immigration while curbing the low-skilled equivalent, she asked: "Is it possible? Is it desirable?" She provided the answer herself: "We also need lower-skilled workers - eight million irregular workers, mostly in the low-skilled sector, prove this."

But she pointed out that the cross-border competition for low wages that has emerged within Europe - which has led to wages for tomato pickers of as low as €2 per hour - is becoming "a major problem". 

In the eyes of trade unions, another problem is the confusion between the free movement of services and free movement of people, where rules on services tend to be abused, leading to the deterioration of social standards. Passchier said: "Movement of labour-only services is movement of workers and should be covered by rules applying to workers' mobility." 

Air France's Emmanuel Jahan, speaking on behalf of CEEP, Europe's public employers organisation, pointed out that beyond well-known problems such as the lack of mobility among the EU population (only 2% are considered mobile), language and differences in legal systems and pensions, employers also face huge challenges with respect to immigrant workers' legal status. A key issue is that in many member states the law obliges them to verify themselves whether a worker has proper legal status within that country. 

With respect to the portability of pensions, Jahan said: "EU member states have not even been able to sort that out among themselves, so I am afraid it will take a long time before we can envisage a solution for immigrant workers." 

Analysts agree that high-skilled immigrants from outside EU borders are needed to close the bloc's demographic, labour and skills gaps (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on High-skilled immigration). 

In September 2007, the Commission presented its proposal for a so-called EU Blue Card, which aims to attract 20 million mainly high-skilled workers from outside the EU. 

An "EU immigration pact" is on top of the French Presidency's agenda. It is aimed at integrating EU member states' policies on matters ranging from high-skilled immigration and undeclared work to the return of illegal immigrants.

At the same time, workers of all skill levels still face major problems when they want to settle down and work in a different member state (see our LinksDossier on Free movement of Labour in the EU 27).

  • 15 Sept. 2008: Tentative date for vote on Blue Card proposal in the European Parliament's LIBE Committee. 
  • 8-9 Oct. 2008: Tentative date for debate on and vote on Blue Card proposal in Parliament plenary.
  • 15 Oct. 2008: French Presidency to present its project for a "European immigration pact" to the European Council, one of the elements of which is expected to be a common European approach to high-skilled immigration.  

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