Tuesday, 3 February 2009


“British workers need protecting from foreign labour, and British industry needs protecting from foreign imports....The country has been plunged into a full scale depression precisely because of globalisation and the government’s refusal to protect British interests. We say that protectionism is the only solution."

These are the words of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party. Translated into deeds they would spell calamity.

Hundreds of thousands of British citizens are working elsewhere within the European Union. They benefit from one of the EU's core principles, the freedom we all have to live and work in any one of the 27 member states.

Bringing down the barriers, opening up opportunities to trade, and allowing the movement of people has brought huge benefits to Britain, not least through broadening experience and boosting economic prosperity in ways not simply fed by house price speculation and artificial banking booms.

Think of the miserable alternative. Shut the doors. Raise the barriers. Close down trade. Try and protect our own interests in a world where the majority of major private sector employers are not British companies. Watch us shoot ourselves in the foot.

My sentiments are reinforced by my party leader, Nick Clegg, who has refused to play a populist card: "pulling out of the labour rules in Europe would be a huge, self-defeating step too far," he has declared.

There are said to be up to 1.5 million people from the UK working in other EU countries. Maybe the same number of other EU citizens working here. Many more Brits, often retired, live in other member states. Maybe there is a tendency for people from Britain to work abroad in higher paying jobs, while a higher percentage of others working here will be in low paid agricultural or hotel jobs that have not been in demand.

Given that a total of 29 million people are employed in the UK the row about jobs at the Lindsey oil refinery might not be regarded as very significant. Here is a plant owned by a French company that let a contract won by a South African company that has subcontracted to an Italian business - all at a site where many employees are working for contractors of different kinds. This is the world in which we now live. But despite the corporate and Mandelsonian reassurances I doubt if the Italian workers living on a barge in Grimsby dock are being paid just as indigenous workers would expect.

European law was never intended to prevent there being a level playing field. It expects jobs to be advertised and be available for local people with the necessary skills. It is weaker on ensuring that local agreements about pay and conditions negotiated through collective bargaining should be respected. The pendulum has swung too far and needs to be corrected.

The publicity of recent days may have sent a warning shot over the bows of international companies that seek to circumvent local terms. If this ensures that in future they avoid giving reason for dispute that will be good. In the longer term UK employment law may need to be strengthened to ensure that greater respect is paid to collective agreements, and the EU Posted Workers Directive needs to be reviewed and clarified to strengthen the level playing field requirements.

But don't expect anything too soon. The wheels of EU law-making turn very slowly. There is no certainty that 26 other Member States feel the same about the need for some change (although it is certain that a good many will do so), and a very high probability that others will point the finger at the UK and say "but it was you who wanted to keep employment rules weak in the first place!"

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