French EU minister seeks solutions to fight social dumping

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In an interview with euractiv.fr, the French Minister in charge of European affairs, Thierry Repentin, expressed his worries of a surge by far-right in next year's EU elections. He calls for better regulation of posted workers and a general minimum wage across the EU.

As social tensions mount in France, especially in Brittany where farmers and food sector workers have protested against government taxes for weeks, Repentin expressed serious concern about "posted workers", who often pay fewer social contributions and taxes than local employees.

The issue, the minister says, is growing into a "political problem" as the EU elections approach.

“It’s not only an economic and social problem, it’s becoming a political problem that has to do with how we conceive Europe. Some political forces will use that issue at the elections,” Repentin told euractiv.fr in an interview.

France's main far-right party, the Front National, has taken the lead in the latest EU election poll, with 24% of French citizens backing the anti-immigration and anti-EU party.

“We’re talking about less than 0.5% of workers, but it’s the psychological impact that’s important," Repentin said.

"The techniques for circumventing local social laws have become more and more sophisticated. Some foreign workers find themselves in precarious situations because of that, and their presence is often misperceived. We are seriously engaged in modifying as soon as possible the 1996 directive which governs this matter, because it is not protective enough”.

Revising the posted workers directive

According to a 1996 EU directive, posted workers have to comply with the labour laws of the host country, a measure aimed at guaranteeing equal pay. However, employers pay social contributions in the country of origin, which can create a gap in labour costs and boost the benefits of foreign companies.

France is looking for allies across the EU to amend the posted workers directive, but most of EU member states do not see it as a priority, especially Britain, which wants to avoid increasing the administrative burden on companies.

>> Read also:  France looks for EU allies in fight against low-cost workers

Repentin wants to give the public administration the means to fight fraud.

In France, posted workers are most frequently hired in sectors like agriculture and construction, but some companies, implanted in France, hire foreign workers via interim companies only in order to avoid paying the social taxes.

According to the minister, the posted workers issue could be solved by next spring. “We have an important ally in this fight: the European Parliament has adopted a report on this matter last spring, which is aligned with our position. We should be able to amend the directive before the next EU elections."

A European minimum wage

France is also in favour of establishing a European minimum wage, but the issue might take much more time.

“It’s no longer a taboo, as it was a few months ago,” Repentin said.

For him, the question is of utmost importance as it would show citizens that “Europe is the place where solutions are found and not a race to the bottom."

A minimum salary, Repentin says, would also help solve social dumping problems in some specific areas of the farming sector, such as slaughterhouses.

German abattoirs, for example, have been singled out for employing low-cost workers from Eastern Europe, to the detriment of their French competitors. By establishing a minimum wage in Germany, competition would be much fairer, Repentin said. 

>> Read the whole interview on euractiv.fr (in French)

Employment ministers from France, Luxembourg and Sweden called in October 2008 for a political solution to two separate rulings by the European Court of Justice that inflamed debate on the balance between workers' rights and economic freedom in the EU.

The European Court of Justice 'Viking Line' and 'Laval' judgments triggered an intense debate about the extent to which trade unions are able to defend workers' rights in cross-border situations, involving posting or relocation of companies.

The judgments have been interpreted by some stakeholders as meaning that economic freedoms would prevail over social rights and in particular the right to strike. 

In the Laval case (also known as the Vaxholm case), Swedish unions took action against Latvian construction company Laval un Partneri, which had posted several dozen workers from Latvia to building sites in Sweden. The company had refused to respect Swedish laws on working conditions and minimum wages.

In the related Viking case, the Court held that trade unions' right to take collective action may be limited by employers' right to freedom of establishment (EURACTIV 12/12/07).

  • 10-11 December : Social Affairs Ministers Council

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