PM should 'up his game' and back EU social dumping action
Writing exclusively for PoliticsHome's Central Lobby, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady argues David Cameron and Remain campaigners should broaden their appeal by supporting EU plans tackling the use of migrant workers to drive down pay.
Port Talbot may have become synonymous with the campaign to save our steel industry. But it’s not the only battle being fought in the town to protect local livelihoods.
This month, unions have been protesting outside an incinerator construction site near the town. Unions say that the firms building the incinerator (Interserve and BWV) have used subcontracted workers from Eastern Europe on less than half the nationally agreed rate for the job.
If the Prime Minister wants to increase support to stay in Europe, he should sign up to a positive agenda emerging in the EU that could put a stop to this practice.
It is an example of what’s become known as ‘social dumping’ – using migrant workers to drive down pay. The Brexit camp will try to exploit it, but unions are having none of it. We know that business appetite for under-paid and exploited labour is not confined to using workers from abroad.
Just this year, anyone aged under 25 was denied the right to what the Conservatives have disingenuously rebranded a 'national living wage'. This decision to under-cut wages was taken in Westminster, not Brussels.
But it's hard to find a single leading light from the Brexit campaigns complaining that this opens the way to young people 'stealing' older workers' jobs. Neither will they support the only real solution – tackling pay discrimination instead of blaming its victims.
As the referendum campaign hots up, pro-Brexit claims that the only way to protect jobs and wages is to restrict the supply of labour have a familiar ring. After all, it wasn't so long ago that the cry of 'go home!' was deployed against women workers.
Within living memory, bars on married women keeping their jobs were commonplace in professions such as teaching, the civil service and the post office. Job segregation is a major factor in unequal pay between the sexes to this day. And there are many millions more women in the workforce than migrants.
In the EU or out, the lessons are clear: when workers are divided one against the other, employers who want to drive down pay will always have the whip hand.
That doesn’t mean we don't need a sensibly managed approach to migration. But it is important to point out that migrant workers are not the enemy. The real enemy is business freedom to divide and exploit workers.
Neither can migrants be blamed for the impact of extreme public sector cuts. Hospital waiting lists are too long, and classroom sizes too big, because of the government’s savage austerity.
The pressure on working people is compounded by high housing costs. The colossal mistake of selling off council housing, while failing to rebuild and restock, has handed private landlords a license to ratchet up rents. And taxpayers are ripped off too, as the housing benefit bill for low-paid workers soars.
The irony of attempts to blame the EU is that our best bet for re-balancing power back in favour of working people is to remain a member. After all, the EU's mission to strike out unfair competition should apply to wages too.
The TUC is clear that Brexit would pose a real threat to workers' rights and livelihoods.
But our case goes beyond defending the rights to family friendly leave and paid holidays that we won through Europe in the past. We want a new agenda for working people.
Combining our strength across borders, British, German, French and Polish trade unions are arguing for stronger equal pay laws. But this time we want a guaranteed rate for the job not just on grounds of gender. We want it for all workers, regardless of the passport they hold.
Across building sites, food factories and airlines, too many employers try to get away with paying migrant workers less, often employing them on agency or zero hours contracts, or stripping them of basic rights by reclassifying them as ‘self-employed’. Sometimes unions have been left with no option but to threaten strike action. But it shouldn't have to be this way.
The European Council President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has promised the European umbrella body of unions, the ETUC, that the principle of equal pay will be extended to apply to all workers, regardless of national origin. He called for: “The same pay, for the same job, at the same place”. He has said that his proposal will start with the Eurozone countries, but those countries outside the Eurozone, like the UK, can opt in if they choose.
With the referendum result on a knife edge, the Prime Minister and the rest of the Remain camp must understand that they have to up their game and broaden their appeal.
So here's a question for David Cameron. Will his 'party of working people' opt in to Juncker's proposal to guarantee everyone a fair day's pay?