Thursday, December 07, 2006

Discrimination on grounds of nationality

At the risk of being seen as a one-trick pony, I would like to draw your attention to, and briefly discuss, some of the issues raised in this article in the Guardian, which discusses the treatment of Poles as workers in the UK:

More than 200,000 Poles have registered to work in Britain since the EU expanded, and the actual number now working here is thought to be much higher. Many have found that employers try to pay them lower wages than British workers and take advantage of their ignorance of employment laws. Now unions, particularly those that recruit from the catering, security and building trades, are reporting a sudden growth in membership and involvement....It is not hard to see why some Polish workers might be examining the new Polish-language sections of union websites as they compare their payslips to those of British colleagues. Once the exhilaration of earning five times the average wage in Poland has abated, many of them realise that the cost of living here eats up most of their pay packet and the agencies that have found them work take their own handsome slices.

As so often, the comments which follow this Guardian piece on the "Polish question" more generally generate much more heat than light, although my interest was aroused by one commentator "Claude Moreira WELLING UK" who pointed out that contra the assertion of the author, Duncan Campbell, there have been other instances since the second world war when since second world war when a trade union branch consisting entirely of migrant workers has been formed in Britain. He cites the case of the T&G:

A search of T & G archives would have indicated to you that a International Workers Branch was opened in 1971 by this trade union to represent Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Turkish workers employed in hotels,restaurants and hospitals in London.The first campaign to obtain trade union representation by the IWB took place on that year at Talk of The Town in Leicester Square and The Mount Royal Hotel.

There are probably other cases as well.

However, the issue which particularly aroused my attention was the issue of employers paying Polish workers less than their UK counterparts, which is presumably a case of a perverted form of market forces in operation. Because the situation of Polish workers is somewhat more vulnerable than other UK and EU workers, as they are generally denied a safety net of welfare benefits unless they can satisfy various qualifications (e.g. one year of employment), they will be very vulnerable to the line: "you'll work for this amount of money, and under these conditions, or we'll get rid of you". The way in which the UK opened up its labour markets to EU8 nationals (although obviously more open minded than those who chose to keep their markets closed as they were entitled to do under the Accession Treaties) leant itself to such unscrupulous practices. Obviously solidarity via trades unions is one method (pdf file), but it is worth pointing out that EU law has something to say about these matters and at one level it is astonishing that governments have not thought it appropriate to make this point publicly, given that there does seem to be a clear problem of exploitation. This is that it is clearly discriminatory on grounds of (EU) nationality and thus contrary to Article 39 of the EC Treaty to pay a worker from Poland less than a worker from the host state. Moreover, this obligation binds private employers just as much as it does the Member States and government employers. But whilst I am on the subject of Polish and other EU8 workers, I would question whether or not the transitional system relating to welfare benefits applied to the EU8 workers by the UK is compatible with EU law either. While the Accession Treaty allowed Member States to opt out of giving labour market access for a particular period, it did not create any "trade-off" system where a Member State which gave labour market access could trade this against limited access to work-related welfare benefits. Thus it seems to me that an EU citizen from an EU8 state, who is lawfully resident in another Member State must be able to rely upon a line of case law in the Court of Justice which protects at least some of the welfare entitlements of those citizens, as citizens. The question is: will anyone ever challenge the UK transitional arrangements for EU8 citizens?