EUROPE'S employers, and their accomplices in the judiciary, were not waiting for the latest economic crisis and recession to start the assault on workers' rights and conditions. It is proceeding at more than one level.
In May this year termination notices were served on 19 Kashmiri/Pakistani seamen working on board Birger Jarl, a Swedish cruise ship. They were given three-moths grace. The ship owners, Roderia Allandia, claimed the redundancies were necessary because under new EU legislation it could not receive financial support from the EU if it employed non-EU workers. This seems in line with what British ministers have been saying about restricting non-EU immigrants.
But the workers say it is just a pretext for sacking them, and the company was making a profit anyway and did not need subsidies. They and their supporters in Sweden say the real reason behind redundancies is: these workers, some of them working for almost twenty-five years now, earn better wages now owing to yearly pay raise they were qualified under Swedish laws. The company wants to fire them and employ new workers instead from possibly east Europe at low wages.
All these Pakistani workers were members of Service and Communication Union for Seamen (SEKO-Sjöfolk), an affiliate of LO (LO is an umbrella organisation like British TUC and is affiliated with Social Democratic party). But critics say the union bureaucracy has let the seafarers down, by not prioritising their fight. One official suggested they just return to Pakistan. Despite this the seafarers are fighting on, conscious that if they went back to Pakistan they would have little prospect of work, and twenty families would face economic disaster.
In an appeal for solidarity, supporters say the workers often get one-year work permits and visas. Three of them already have their work permits and visas expired as the company did not help workers renew their visas. "The company, in advance, was planning to fire these workers without intimating them since it was counting on the expiry of their visas so the workers could be deported through immigration authorities. All of them will have their visas expired this Autumn. This of course makes the situation acute for the workers and their struggle precarious".
They urge protest letters to Rederi, to the Swedish Commerce Minister, and to the Swedish embassy/Consulate in your country.
Fax: 0046 -8-10 07 41
Swedish Commerce Minister Maud Olofsson
This case fits the pattern seen in a number of legal cases in the European Union, being referred to together as Viking, Laval, Ruffert and Luxemburg, which have sent alarm through trade unions and been described as "the greatest attack on workers' rights since the Thatcher anti-union laws of the 1980s".
Viking is a shipping line which runs ferry services between Finland and Estonia, flying the Finnish flag. The company management decided to re-flag their ferries - using the Estonian flag. The decision was also taken to employ Estonian labour in order to take advantage of the fact that wages are lower in Estonia. In response, the Finnish Seamen’s Union (FSU) warned the company Viking that they might take collective action to stop the re-flagging process. To avoid the danger of being undercut, it also asked the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) under its “Flag of conveniences campaign” to ask their members not to start negotiations with Viking unless they were based in Finland.
The European Court of Justice, while recognising the right to strike under the principles of EU law, declared that it could be restricted. In effect, it decided in the case of Viking and of a Latvian construction company which employed workers on contracts in Sweden, that trade union efforts to insist on standard wages and conditions in the country could be treated as interfering with fredom of movement within the EU, and that employers could sue the unions.
When the Latvian company Laval won a tender for school construction in the town of Vaxholm in Sweden, the Swedish unions tried to negotiate with the Latvian firm for a collective agreement on pay and conditons, as is usual pracctice in Sweden. Laval not only brought in workers from Latvia, but insisted on signing an agreement there, on Latvian pay rates and conditions. Swedish building unions blockaded the site, and electricians took solidarity action. .
The European Court of Justice said the unions action was not justified, and that neither Swedish labour law and practice nor the unions could go beyond European directives on protection of posted workers. .In other words, from settting minimum rights, the EU law is being interpreted as a maximum.
In the case of Ruffert, a German company which had won a prison construction contract in Lower Saxony sub-contracted work to a Polish company. It turned out that the 53 Polish workers actually only earned 46,57 % the pay of their German colleagues on the site. Therefore the Lower Saxony regional government applied the contractual penalties and annulled the contract and imposed financial penalties on the company.
The European Court of Justice(ECJ) judged that this too went beyond the EU directive. In its view the Lower Saxony authorities were not to fix pay as law does not itself fix any minimum rate of pay and the collective agreement in question had not been declared universally applicable. In
In July 2006 the European Commission brought an action against Luxemburg before the ECJ under the infringement procedure, arguing that Luxemburg’s current labour legislation is not in line with the Posting of Workers Directive. Luxemburg, it argues, interprets too widely the term 'public policy provisions' by requiring foreign service providers to respect all labour law regulation in Luxemburg.
The complaint concerns, among other things,
1) the obligation that foreign service providers can only employ employees posted in Luxemburg if they have concluded a written contract of employment or prepared a similar document,
(2) The automatic adjustment of pay to changes in the cost of living
(3) Rules governing part-time and fixed-term employment
(4) Respect of collective agreements.
European Trade Union Institute for Research, Education and Health and Safety (ETUI-REHS)
Whereas we have been arguing that British workers' standards and rights should be brought up to higher levels in Europe, the moves by employers, governments, and as we see, even more the European Court over-ruling elected governments and negotiated agreements, is going the other way, particularly since the EU's expansion, to reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator.
The media, with its trivial tales about straight bananas and weights and meassures, as well as its vicious attacks on immigrants, has done everything to divert attention from the real, serious dangers.
IF the CJ's rulings are accepted as laying down the law, what happens to promises about the London living wage, which the RMT has fought for for cleaners on the London Undergound, and which Mayor Boris Johnson has promised to have honoured in contracts?
What about the understanding agreed by unions and employers regarding conditions on the Olympic sites?
Having kept Thatcher's anti-union laws,.and only resisted the EU when it came to directives limiting working hours and setting retirement age, what chance is there that New Labour under Gordon Brown would defend workers rights and living standards?
The South East Region TUC's International Committee is holding an open meeting on December 10 on the subject of Viking, laval, Ruffert and Luxemburg.
Speakers announced are Professor Keith Ewing, of the Institute of Employment Rights,
Hannah Reed senior Employment Rights Officer of the TUC, and Jim McLausan general secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association (to be confirmed).
It's at 6pm, Wednesday, December 10, Congress House, Great Russel Street, WC1
(near Tottenham Court Road tube). .