‘Polish Plumber’ Nightmare: France’s Battle against Low-Cost Workers

Written by | Monday, November 11th, 2013

After the ‘Polish plumber’ phenomenon came to the fore in 2005, the French government has now launched a vigorous campaign against the problem of “posted workers”, who are sent to another EU country on a temporary basis, often at a lower cost. The efforts of French political establishment, which has been seeking support to deal with social dumping by amending the EU posted workers directive, have encountered firm opposition from the UK and Eastern European countries.
In the French region of Brittany, for example, where high unemployment is causing social unrest, some local companies are said to have been able to hire employees from other European countries, with a different labor law and social system that makes those workers cheaper than French employees, which comply with the French social system. According to a 1996 EU directive, posted workers have to comply with the labor law of the host country, whereby this measure is aimed at guaranteeing equal pay. However, employers pay social contributions in the country of origin, which can produce a gap in labor costs and boost benefits for companies. Employment ministers from France, Luxembourg and Sweden called in October 2008 for a political solution to two separate rulings by the European Court of Justice that lead to an inflamed debate on the balance between workers’ rights and economic freedom in the EU.
The number of posted workers in France has soared since the ‘Eastern Enlargement of the European Union in 2004 – their number has grown four-fold, from 38,000 to 145,000 between 2006 and 2011. At the same time, Eric Bocquet, a French senator from the Communist Party, alleges that the difference in contributions between Poland and France can be as high as 30%. Posted workers are usually hired in areas such as construction, agriculture and transport, but also in other sectors, such as events management, Bocquet explained.
French government has been looking for allies at the EU level who would support the call for tougher rules on these “low-cost” workers. However, EU negotiations to amend the posted workers directive – including the last meeting of Social Affairs Ministers in October 2013 – have stalled. While France, Belgium, Spain, and to a lesser extent Germany, want better control of the posted workers status, the UK and the Eastern countries are firmly opposed to it. And there is also a heightened concern over a potential labor market destabilization and even xenophobic backlash that could occur, according to a French politician, Gilles Savary, “when an employer can hire 30% cheaper workers in a legal and systematic way in a highly competitive environment.”

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