Europe’s top trade unionist on Thursday warned European Union policymakers that protectionism, economic nationalism and labour discontent would grow unless they improved pay rates for EU workers employed outside their home countries.

In an interview with the Financial Times, John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, called for a review of the EU’s 1999 posted workers directive, which he said did too little to stop some employers from paying lower wages to workers hired from abroad than to local staff.

Mr Monks spoke out against a background of rising political tensions in the EU over how to defend jobs and industries in France, Germany, the UK and other countries without shattering the 27-nation bloc’s single internal market.

Spontaneous strikes broke out at several British plants last month after a construction contract at Total’s Lindsey oil refinery was awarded to a company using labour drawn mainly from Italy and Portugal. The dispute was resolved only when Total promised to earmark half the jobs for local workers.

“Revising the posted workers directive is not some kind of sly attempt to undermine the single market,” Mr Monks said. “It’s to establish rules that make it more acceptable and defensible in the circles in which we [trade unionists] move.”

The European Commission last week said it had launched a series of studies on the impact of EU regulations on worker mobility, but saw no need for new legislation for the moment.

The stated aim of the posted workers directive is to uphold free movement of labour but prevent “social dumping” in the form of excessively low wages for imported staff. But Mr Monks said two recent European Court of Justice rulings, known as the Laval and Viking cases, had weakened local workers’ rights.

“We’d been getting nervous even before the recession that if this wasn’t addressed by the EU authorities, it would lead to greater protectionism and nationalism with regard to the free movement of labour,” Mr Monks said. “Now we’ve got high unemployment and people are more nationalistically inclined, people are having another look at [the posted workers directive]. And we say, ‘It’s a licence to ship workers around Europe at minimum rates, and it’s got to be stopped’.”

Mr Monks’s call for a stronger directive would have a noticeable impact on Denmark, Sweden, the UK and some eastern European countries, where enforcable collective agreements between employers and unions are not the norm.

The effect would be to move closer to a German- or French-style system, where employers, whether local or from other EU states, abide by sector-wide agreements governing pay rates.

Protectionism could sink the EU

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