Saturday, January 31, 2009

Things are turning very ugly.

This is awful!

It looks as though there's no real "illegality" in what Total are doing. Membership of the EU means that workers are free to work in any member country. And companies are free to pitch for business in other member countries. And it's quite understandable that a company would wish to use its own, known-quantity, employees and sub-contractors rather than find and hire new ones.

But the end result is that, as we crash into a major recession, the unemployed in some of impoverished parts of the UK see major work going ahead around them, and Italian and Portuguese guys brought in to do it.

They are understandably furious. Union spokespeople interviewed on the BBC yesterday were trying to walk an impossibly narrow tightrope. Not able to claim that IREM has broken any laws (or is even doing anything morally wrong) but wanting to echo the anger of their members. They're trying to do this by focusing on worries of a "race to the bottom" and the lack of social clauses in European freedom of labour rules. But, as far as I can tell, this isn't really the issue here. The Italians who are coming will be paid the same rate as UK contractors. They aren't being brought in because they're cheap. They're being brought in because the company that employs them is Italian and already familiar with them.

This is a horrible situation with no possibility of a happy outcome. The government and unions are caught in a dilemma. Go protectionist and they risk deepening the recession and wrecking European economic and political co-operation. Could the EU basically fall apart?

Defend the rights of foreign companies to work on contracts here, bringing their own labour, and they risk losing all credibility with the workers and opening the possibility of a right-wing working-class backlash. Think major gains for the British National Party in local government and within unions themselves; foreign workers everywhere in the UK becoming victims of xenophobia and racist attack.

Horrible. Horrible!

There are only two options that might save us from this.

1) One is the government really commits to massive spending and development of its own in these areas, effectively creating enough jobs that this and similar cases don't matter all that much.

2) Or engage in quiet, behind the scenes, back-politicking with Total, IREM and maybe the Italian government ... for example to get them to create some extra positions for UK workers in this project. I'm talking even payoffs and bribes if it helps. It's underhand, ethically icky, but in this case, maybe it would be worth it. (Though I prefer option 1 obviously.)


dariush sokolov said...

Though how many british workers are working abroad for uk-based companies on energy, petroleum, and general engineering projects? I'd bet "british workers" in these industries gain jobs globally, in net terms. So this is a pretty dodgy argument for unite to make. And of course misses the point altogether. But yes, highlights another pressure for reversion to instinctive protectionism, which is one of the big factors that could turn recession into depression.

phil jones said...

Obviously I have no idea whether British workers are or aren't net beneficiaries over liberalizing labour flows.

Whether they are or aren't, I'm very concerned that people worry about "labour flows" as opposed to "capital flows". Capital is already at an advantage in that it's much more mobile than labour. To turn what little mobility labour has into a problem is a very bad thing indeed.

I suppose for a particular trade union like Unite, *its* membership may be net losers although they wouldn't be able to explicitly campaign on that issue. But then turning the demand into an appeal for "British jobs for British workers" plays to the worst protectionist and right-wing passions.