In recent speeches, most notably to the Scottish Labour Party conference, Jeremy Corbyn has cited the Posted Workers Directive as a reason for resisting membership of “the” Single Market, on the grounds that it allows workers from abroad to undercut the pay and conditions of local workers, and is therefore an example of how the Single Market is incompatible with his vision of a jobs-first Brexit.
So, as the Labour leadership comes under mounting criticism – not least from Labour Party members – over its position on the Single Market, it’s worth taking a look at this Directive and its implications.
Directive 96/71/EC provided that where an employee is posted to another Member State as part of a contract within that State, the employment rules of the home Member State shall apply. The Directive covers agency staff as well as those whose employers are providing a service for a client in another Member State.
The Directive is obviously based on the need to ensure freedom of movement across Member States, and to ensure that in particular small and medium enterprises are not bound by the need to comply with potentially 27 different sets of employment law. It does provide (Article 3(1)) that workers should receive a minimum standard of protection in relation to issues including working time, health and safety, discrimination law and maternity rights. And it recognises the realities of a Europe in which borders have been dismantled – that, for example, an agency worker based in Lille could quite easily find themselves working a few kilometres across the border in Belgium; a worker in Maastricht could quite easily work in Belgium or Germany. Or – with particular relevance – a worker employed, for example, by a building firm in Northern Ireland could well undertake work on contracts in the Republic.
So what is the effect of this, and does it represent a threat to workers’ rights?
The latest data indicate that, out of a total workforce of more than 31 million, there are 54,000 posted workers in the UK. The UK numbers are, unsurprisingly, trivial compared with those on the European mainland. Of those in the UK, by far the largest single group – amounting to 20% – are, equally unsurprisingly, from the Republic of Ireland. Only around 16% come from what are described as “low wage” economies.
So, in other words, the effect of this Directive on the UK Labour Market is trivial to the point of invisibility. The idea that it is part of a “wholesale” – to use Corbyn’s usual term – undermining of the pay and conditions of British workers is complete and utter nonsense.
And, obviously, its effect – such as it is – pales into insignificance compared with the effect of a hard Brexit. Even Theresa May is now admitting that leaving the Single Market will hurt the British economy; economic opinion is that the effect could be massive; and it will hurt in particular those parts of the UK that are already among the poorest (including Wales, which is why the Labour First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has from the outset talked of the need for “full and unfettered access” to the Single Market).
So why is the Labour leadership continuing to argue that this Directive is a rationale for staying out of the Single Market? At one level, it is partly because the current leadership comes from a tendency within in the Labour Party that is deeply ideologically hostile to the EU, and has never really moved on from the economic debates of the 1980s.
But at another level, it exposes the huge problem that besets Labour policy-making. Corbyn, John McDonnell and the people around them have no experience of making and delivering policy; they have never held any office that requires them to make policy decisions on the basis of evidence. They are agitators, not achievers; people who are content to protest outside the corridors of power rather than take the opportunity to work within them, to bring about change.
And, with the UK facing the existential economic and social threat of Brexit, Labour needs to do far better than this. Not for the first time, I find myself quoting Aneurin Bevan: the language of priorities is the religion of socialism. Labour leaders on the Left need to do so much better than Corbyn and McDonnell on this issue.
And using a minor, trivial EU Directive as an excuse for colluding in the Brexit disaster, a collusion that will embed austerity in the UK for decades, is about as gross a dereliction of responsibility and leadership as one could imagine.