Socialist Worker

Backdoor Bolkestein: European workers face new attacks

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2036

New Labour wants to make the right to strike illegal under European Union (EU) law. At the same time it wants it to be legal to pay migrant workers less than the minimum wage.

Tony Blair's government is arguing in the European courts for a series of attacks on workers' rights.

A number of cases going through the European Court of Justice (ECJ) show the direction of the neoliberal agenda in Europe.

They show that Blair's government is at the heart of pushing for a race to the bottom.

The Labour government declared that strike action is not a fundamental right during submissions at an ECJ hearing on 11 January – where the Finnish Seaman's Union (FSU) was appealing against an injunction preventing strike action against the Viking ferry line.

Fourteen member states were questioned on whether industrial action is a fundamental right.

Britain was the only state to argue that strikes and picketing aren't rights. If the FSU loses, unions could lose the right to strike across the EU.

In another case, a Latvian construction company has accused a Swedish trade union of forcing it out of business by unfairly insisting it follow Swedish rules. This a landmark case that could change workers' rights across the EU.

Unsurprisingly, the British government has actively taken the side of the Latvian bosses in the case.

In 2004, a Swedish trade union demanded that a Latvian company building a school in the Swedish city of Vaxholm pay Swedish wages and sign its migrant workers up to a Swedish collective wage agreement.

The firm, Laval, refused and unions picketed the site, blocking the construction and effectively forcing Laval out of the Swedish market.


If the Latvian company wins this case, companies across Europe will be able to employ people on the wages and conditions of whichever country in Europe has the worst conditions. It will open the door to even harsher exploitation of migrant labour.

In a further case the Amicus union is fighting for compensation for workers who have lost pensions.

Since 1983 an estimated 125,000 British workers have lost their pensions after their companies went bust.

In last week's ruling the ECJ said that the British government's pension protection is 'inadaquate' – an important step according to Amicus.

But the court ruled that the government did not have to compensate those who had lost out. 'The court finds that the directive does not oblige the member states to fund the rights to old age benefits,' it said.

All three cases are part of the drive towards the Lisbon programme, which is a plan for the EU to be economically 'stronger' than the US by 2010.

This means dismantling decent working conditions and removing of all constraints on big business.

A key element of the Lisbon programme was the pushing through of the Bolkestein services directive, which aimed to liberalise services throughout the EU.

After large union protests last year the directive was slightly watered down but those aspects of the directive that were made vaguer have been moved to the European Court.

The other aspect of the assault is a new European Commission green paper, Modernising Labour Law to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century.


The Commission says its purpose is to examine how 'labour law impacts on labour market flexibility and how to facilitate new ways of working and promote employment'.

It urges member states to 'assess, and where necessary alter, the level of flexibility provided in standard contracts in areas such as periods of notice, costs and procedures for individual or collective dismissal, or the definition of unfair dismissal'.

The proposals would change employment law to cut workers' rights and increase the casualisation of labour.

Of the 25 EU member states, Britain offers the lowest level of protection for agency workers – with temporary employees currently earning 38 percent less than their counterparts in permanent positions.

Across Europe, some eight million part-time workers are unable to find full-time jobs. Half of young workers are being forced into short-term contracts.

The neoliberal drive through the European courts can only make this worse.

'Politics must be for the people and their needs'

by Sarah Wagenknecht, Die Linke MEP, Germany

When Frits Bolkestein's services directive was passed last year everyone wanted to claim it as a victory for themselves.

The social democrats saw themselves as the defenders of social Europe, the conservatives saw themselves as the promoters of the free market.

The liberals grumbled that the compromise did not go far enough – fully knowing that big business, which they represent, will be the main profiter from the directive.

They were joined by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in claiming that the passage of the services directive was a success of its own.

In reality we have now entered into a large scale attack on social Europe. The notion of 'country of origin principle' has disappeared – it now says more neutrally, 'freedom of movement for services'.

But things that were excluded, such as health services, are to be regulated by a separate directive.

The present vague formulations do not offer any protection. Interpretation will be left to the European Court, which is known for its company friendly judgments.

What is to be expected is a liberalisation push with all the negative follow-up effects for existing social, labour and ecological standards.

The services directive is part of a programme of plans driven forward by the EU. They are measures for the strengthening of big businesses. To improve their 'competitiveness' additional regulations are supposed to fall.

The unifying ideas are two large-scale projects. On the one hand is the Lisbon strategy.

On the other hand, the project of the EU constitution, often called dead, is unfortunately not yet off the table.

Resistance is more than necessary even though it did not prevent the Bolkestein directive.

The politics of social demolition, deregulation and liberalisation must be decisively struggled against.

Politics may not be conducted in the interests of the big business. The guiding thread of politics must be the people and their needs.

The resistance against the neoliberal forces must continue. There will be many projects that must be fought against in the future.

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Sat 3 Feb 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2036
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