As the EU celebrates 30 years of its single market and freedom of movement, for construction workers, there are many problems associated with it, according to union boss Johan Lindholm.
While the possibility to live and work in a different country is generally viewed positively by the European population, it has also led to new forms of workers’ exploitation, workers’ rights advocates said at an online campaign event by the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW) on Tuesday (30 May).
“We are celebrating 30 years of the single market this year, but from construction workers’ point of view, there is not so much to celebrate,” Lindholm, head of the EFBWW said at the event.
“What they have seen over the last three decades is actually less social protection, more precarious jobs, increasingly unsafe and unhealthy work conditions, but also a very fierce competition between workers based on nationality and employment status,” Lindholm added.
The union takes particular aim at the EU’s rules for ‘posted workers’, which regulate how companies can send their workers from one member state to another. The EU’s posted workers’ directive was reviewed and updated in 2018, introducing the principle of equal pay for the same work at the same place.
While this reform was introduced to reduce social dumping through the use of posted workers, trade unions are not yet satisfied.
In combination with the fairly common practice of using subcontractors in the construction industry, the use of posted workers opens the door for violations of workers’ rights as well as exploitation, according to EFBWW.
“Social dumping is not new in the construction industry, but recently we see a new trend,” Lindholm said. An increasing number of workers would only be “hired to be posted”, he added.
Increasing number of third-country nationals
Subcontractors are not only used to outsource certain tasks to specialists but increasingly also for the core of the construction activity. Often, this even leads to a “chain” of multiple subcontractors, making it difficult for workers to claim their rights, as responsibilities become blurred.
This would increasingly also affect workers from third countries, such as India, Nepal, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, who are hired in one EU country in which they never work but are immediately sent to another country, the trade union says.
There is an increasing number of so-called posting agencies, whose “main business model is to bring workers to the EU, in gateway countries, who are then posted to another country”, Tom Deleu, the trade union’s Secretary General told EURACTIV.
“Posting of workers was never meant as a business model to send workers around Europe, it was meant for companies to go abroad for a specific time and deliver a specific task,” he added.
Limit the number of subcontracts
To tackle the problem, the union calls for a ban on agencies for posted workers. Posting workers “should be about construction workers companies sending workers”, Deleu said.
The trade union also calls for a limit on the number of layers of subcontracts that can be given to perform a specific task.
For that, the trade union receives support from the centre-left S&D group within the European Parliament.
“We must limit subcontracting and shorten the long subcontracting chains,” Agnes Jongerious, a Dutch EU lawmaker of S&D said at the event.
Some countries have already taken such steps, such as Belgium, Spain or Italy, Deleu said, while others are still discussing. The construction workers union would like to see this rule applied EU-wide.
“In an internal market, it should not only be about competition and making business easier but also about fair competition and equal treatment of workers,” Deleu said.
“There is a strong role of the Commission when it comes to protecting the single market, including free movement of services,” he said. Therefore, “the Commission should also play a role to ensure that this is not abused by companies,” he added.
For centre-left lawmaker Jongerious, this is particularly important when it comes to construction financed by the state. “Public spending must be conditional on social requirements, such as collective agreements or working conditions,” Jongerious said.
Public contracts for the construction of new public buildings or infrastructure should include such provisions, for example when they are financed with EU money, she added.