Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
One of Poland's core competitive advantages has been its cheap but well qualified labour force, which is why the Polish government is reacting with alarm to a new German minimum wage law that may affect foreign transport companies transiting Germany.
The German law, which came into effect at the beginning of this year, calls for a minimum wage of €8.50, a regulation that also applies to foreign companies operating in Germany. The German regulation also seems to encompass foreign companies whose lorries use German autobahns to carry loads across Europe.
German officials say that the goal is to prevent “price dumping” by cheaper foreign operators, but that is just what is worrying the Poles. Poland, which has the EU's second largest transport sector, pays truck drivers about €3 an hour, and transport companies say that the additional cost could drive them out of business.
“Germany's action is aimed at limiting the competitiveness of Polish businesses. If Polish entrepreneurs are forced to pay €8.50 an hour, that will end the domination of the Polish transport sector and of Polish shipping companies on the German market,” Sebastian Paluch, head of the Polish Transport Forum, an industry grouping, told Poland's TVN television.
Ewa Kopacz, the Polish prime minister, called German Chancellor Angela Merkel on January 21 to talk over the issue. “The conversation was a readable and clear communication that this issue is important for the prime minister and that she treats it as a priority,” government spokeswoman Iwona Sulik told reporters.
Poland has complained about the new law to the European Commission, joining with the UK, Romania, Hungary and the Baltic countries. Polish radio reports that Brussels has already sent a query to Berlin to see if the regulation violates EU rules.
“We have to do everything possible to stop the adoption of such strange rules,” said Grzegorz Schetyna, Poland's foreign minister.
The minimum wage question is very important to German labour unions, which want to keep German workers from being undercut by cheaper competition from central Europe. However, it is also vital for Kopacz as she gears up for parliamentary elections this autumn.
Polish truckers are already threatening to go on strike if the German minimum wage law is upheld, adding to wider labour grievances. Polish coal miners recently went on strike to blunt a government plan aimed at shutting down lossmaking mines, and the Solidarity labour union has threatened a national strike over the coal issue.
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