The Czech Republic’s employment minister has warned that attempts to excessively curb the freedom of workers from Eastern Europe to work in Western Europe would feed anti-EU sentiment in her country.
Michaela Marksova spoke out after on October 24 EU ministers gathered in Luxembourg dealt with French concerns over “posted” cheap foreign labour described as “social dumping”. After a marathon 12 hours of negotiations, they agreed to substantially tighten rules on migrant workers. Marksova's warning also came following the runaway victory at the weekend of populist billionaire's eurosceptic Ano party in Czechia's general election.
“Any further steps taken from the EU level which would indicate disrespect to the central eastern European countries may very soon lead to an anti-EU atmosphere,” Marksova said. “We may be far closer to Czexit,” she added. There are worries that as prime minister Babis might accede to Czech President and fellow populist Milos Zeman's demand for a referendum on continued membership of the EU.
The concerns over social dumping raised in particular by France led to 18 months of politically tense talks. The proposal ministers agreed to back — although at the end of the meeting chaired by Estonian Labour Minister Jevgeni Ossinovski, Czechia, Poland and Hungary declined to support it — is a French-led initiative to impose a 12-month limit on the posting of workers sent by companies from low-wage countries to work in richer EU member states without the need to comply with all local labour laws.
The original call was for a 24-month limit, but French President Emmanuel Macron refused to accept it. However, in a compromise ministers settled on 12 months and accepted that companies will have the option to extend postings by half a year. The principle of equal pay for equal work, meaning a migrant worker receives the same remuneration as offered to a local worker, will also be brought in by the changes. "Equal pay for equal work at same place is at heart of 'Social Europe'," the European Union's Commissioner for Social Affairs Marianne Thyssen wrote on Twitter after the ministers' meeting.
Poland is the biggest 'exporter' of posted workers in the EU. It sends just under 500,000 a year. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo has described Macro's push against so-called social dumping as “arrogant”.
Only 0.7% of the EU’s labour force — under two million people — is in fact made up of posted workers. Not that this low share deters anti-EU populists in Western European member states from raising anxieties about the availability of cheap foreign workers and what that means for domestic job insecurity. The theme was heavily debated prior to the Brexit referendum.
Among compromises agreed by EU ministers is a move to temporarily exempt transport workers, such as truck drivers, from the new rules. Companies, meanwhile, will be given a four-year transition period to adjust to the changes. The European parliament will get a chance to debate the changes before any legislative moves are made.
The issue of posted workers was on Macron's agenda during his visit to Central Europe in August, when he won the backing of now-outgoing Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovak PM Robert Fico for his drive to reform the EU.
Prior to the agreement made by the ministers, Hungarian Economy Minister Mihaly Varga estimated that in the worst-case scenario Hungary would lose 15,000 jobs and 1pp of its GDP.