Helsinki (29.01.1999 - Juhani Artto) Mid-December 1999 is the deadline for the fifteen Member States of the EU to harmonise their legislation with Directive 96/71/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services.
The initiative that led to the Directive was originally proposed in 1989 by EFBWW, the European Federation of Building and Wood Workers. In 1991 the European Commission published its first version of the Directive. This would have allowed workers sent by a company in a low-pay country to work in a high-pay country for three months at the wage levels of the low-pay country. Such social dumping was and remains unacceptable to the trade unions and would also question the rationale of the European internal market. In 1993 the Commission reduced the disputed time to one month.
After fierce lobbying by the trade union movement and by many employer organisations, the Directive finally approved does not envisage even a single day of work for low pay on the building sites of a high-pay country. In installation work the Directive permits eight days of work at the lower wages and salaries of the sender country.
One of the trade union movement lobbyists was the Finnish lawyer Jari Hellsten, who recently completed a six year assignment with the EFBWW in Brussels.
Hellsten describes what he has learned: "When lobbying in Brussels the trade union movement has to be pro-active. There also has to be reasonable division of labour between various union organisations".
"Successful influence is based on the expertise gained through hard work. It is nowhere nearly enough merely to visit Brussels a few times and let the authorities know your views. The EU decision-making processes are usually long, and often last for several years."
"Various institutions, such as the Commission, the Parliament and the Council, demand different types of lobbying. One has to maintain an independent touch on matters and not allow one's train of thought to be seduced by the big machinery. Lobbying requires lots of human and other resources to keep union organisation one step ahead rather than one step behind the decision-making process", Hellsten emphasises.
Hellsten feels that social dumping is a definite threat, especially in agriculture, in the construction industry, in forestry work and in the hotel and catering business. The Directive will be an effective weapon in the fight against social dumping but it will not suffice alone to forestall the threat.
The Directive applies to wages and salaries, hours of work, annual holiday, health and safety, equality and conditions for hiring. Social security is governed by other administrative measures. An employee may work in another EU country for up to one year - and in many cases even longer - while retaining the social security benefits of the country of origin.
The fight against social dumping within the 15-member EU is by no means over. In the run-up to December 1999 there will be a need to put pressure on national legislators, who have to harmonise national legislation with the Directive. "Once the national legislation is in place, the labour market partners will have to sign a framework agreement on how to apply the Directive", Hellsten stresses. "Trade unions and employer organisations must have a proper role in the application of the Directive."
In the application process Hellsten prefers agreements negotiated by labour market organisations to the other option: case law. In any case, Hellsten thinks that the trade unions will have to devote considerable human and material resources to the continuing fight for just working conditions for employees sent by the companies of other countries.
Germany is currently the main arena for this fight. Hellsten hopes that Germany's new government will change the rules formulated by Helmut Kohl's cabinet because they undermine the rights of organised employers and labour. Germany has a special ruling allowing unorganised German and foreign companies and employees to apply wages and salaries in the construction industry that fall far below the minimum set in the collective agreement for the industry.
Companies in low-pay countries have sent rather few employees to Finland. The largest groups have been workers from Estonia and Poland. The work permit system fails to exert full control over the working conditions of employees sent to Finland by foreign companies. Illegal foreign operations are concentrated in the construction industry. The Construction Workers' Union is fighting back to combat the grey economy, which distorts market competition and threatens the future of those companies and employees which operate within the law.