CONSTRUCTION workers demonstrating against the exploitation of their foreign comrades and undercutting of local pay and conditions deserve our support.
The principle Unite and GMB members are fighting for — equal pay for equal work in the same place — is a no-brainer in terms of social justice.
The fight for equal pay has been a defining one for the labour movement for decades.
The battle has not been won — women in full-time work earn 13.9 per cent less than their male counterparts 44 years on from the Equal Pay Act, while black graduates earn 23 per cent less than their white counterparts.
The causes include institutional racism and sexism as well as inadequate childcare options that affect women more severely than men in a patriarchal society.
They are exacerbated by a capitalist system in which working people’s rights are subordinate to those of their employers — with bosses’ ability to hire and fire without adequate safeguards for their employees enabling prejudice to go unchallenged and unpunished, especially where access to your rights depends on paying exorbitant tribunal fees.
Nonetheless, trade unions have made significant advances in winning recognition for the principle of equal pay, and if a company tried to undercut its existing workforce by hiring women or British citizens of a different ethnic origin, and then refusing to pay them the established rate for the job, it would soon find itself in trouble with the law.
And yet exactly this is possible when it comes to hiring “posted” workers — defined by the European Council as people “who, for a limited period of time, carries out [their] work in the territory of an EU member state other than the state in which he or she normally works.”
The 1996 Posted Workers directive was sold to the labour movement as a bid to protect working people’s rights, but over the last two decades it has proved to have the opposite effect.
The directive stipulates that posted workers have a right to the minimum standard of employment conditions in the host country.
But even the principle that workers should receive the minimum wage of the country they are working in has been challenged by jiggery-pokery over who counts as a posted worker — so the European Commission has taken action against both Germany and France for trying to insist on their respective minimum wages being paid to lorry drivers operating in their territories.
Workers posted to construction sites in Britain, employed by various contractors on behalf of several Danish firms, are getting the minimum wage — but this is almost £10 an hour less than the industry-agreed basic rate of £16.97, more if the denial of collectively agreed hourly bonuses is taken into account.
This is bad for the posted workers, who are being absurdly underpaid, and bad for others in the industry, who are seeing their terms and conditions undermined.
This is possible because a succession of judgements from the European Court of Justice (ECJ), in the Laval, Ruffert and Luxembourg cases, have determined that collectively agreed terms can’t be upheld if they “impede” the free movement of goods and services.
So in Laval the ECJ found that striking to protect terms and conditions interferes with the “right to provide services” and is therefore illegal.
But a strike that doesn’t impede a company’s provision of services is entirely pointless.
If workers can only withdraw their labour so long as their employer remains unaffected, the right to strike has been abolished in all but name.
Socialists must stand with the trade unionists who demonstrated for equal pay yesterday — and start fighting for changes in the law to prevent this sort of scandal recurring once Britain leaves the EU and ceases to be subject to the ECJ’s anti-worker rulings.