Page last updated at 17:22 GMT, Wednesday, 16 September 2009 18:22 UK

Unions urge EU labour law changes

Walkout at Lindsey refinery, North Lincs, Friday
Unions say British workers should enjoy equal treatment

Unions have called for changes to EU employment laws to prevent a repeat of this year's dispute at the Lindsey oil refinery.

Delegates at the TUC congress called for reform of a European directive which allows firms to bring in staff from overseas on temporary contracts.

This had undermined national wage agreements and driven down conditions for British workers, delegates said.

Ministers have said all workers must be treated equally under EU law.

Level-playing field

February's strike by 1,000 workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, in protest at the use of Italian workers for a short-term contract, triggered a wave of wildcat stoppages.

British workers said they had been overlooked for the vacancies and accused the refinery's operator of bringing in foreign labour because it was cheaper - something it denied.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown came under fire for comments he made in 2007 in which he appeared to promise "British jobs for British workers".

This argument has to be taken to government
Derek Simpson, Unite General Secretary

On Wednesday, delegates in Liverpool backed calls for reform of the Posted Workers Directive - an EU-wide law allowing firms to bring in workers from elsewhere in the EU on a temporary basis, as long as they abide by local working conditions.

Unions say this law has been abused and called on the government, pending reform of the directive itself, to apply it differently in the UK.

It backed a motion calling for a "level-playing field" for all contractors and for firms discriminating against domestic workers to be excluded from tenders.

Derek Simpson, general secretary of the Unite union, said the directive had enabled some employers to undermine years of struggle by unions to secure collective wage deals.

Mr Simpson said the Lindsey dispute had not been about excluding foreign workers from UK jobs but the fundamental right of all workers to "clean and fair access" to jobs.

"We need some further legislation to protect collective agreements," he said. "This argument has to be taken to government to act on this."


The GMB union said the directive needed to be "urgently revised" to prevent workers being "exploited by unscrupulous employers".

While problems had so far been limited to the construction industry, it said workers in all sectors could be at risk as employers sought to reduce costs during the recession.

The European Parliament would need to approve any changes to the directive, which came into force in 1996.

But unions say the UK government has the leeway to interpret the directive differently to ensure companies are required to recognise national or sector-wide pay agreements.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, elected to a second term in office on Wednesday, has called for a "tightening" of the law to reflect changing labour and economic conditions.

Government officials said EU states were studying recent legal rulings regarding the directive and did not want to "rush to conclusions" about what they might mean for existing laws.

"Posted workers rules need to strike a careful balance between the protection of workers' rights on the one hand and ensuring the freedom to provide services across borders as enshrined in the single market on the other," a spokesman for the Department for Business said.

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