Saturday, February 28, 2009

UK unions push for early implementation of EU agency worker rules

The UK Department for Business and Regulatory Reform is burdened with a rather onerous title and, worse a very inconvenient acronym (DBERR). So it probably should come as no surprise that is responsible for creating one of the most inelegant and soulless phrases I have come across for a while. The "Comparator Worker" is some-one who does the same job as you at the same company as you and recieves the same salary as you, only difference being s/he is on a temporary contract.

There should not even be any reason to come up with a new name for what is already understood universally as a temporary worker except DBERR is to carry out a consultation on how best to define such a worker as part of its preparations for the implementation of new EU legislation on agency workers. Businesses want to ensure that there is a clear difference between a temporary worker and a permanent one even if the nature of their work is the same. However Union leaders from the GMB and Unite will be giving a different interpretation when they see Gordon Brown in Bristol today.

The UK reluctantly agreed to a new EU Directive that would give temporary workers to pay as much to temps who have been in the job at least 12 weeks as they would to permanent employees (if their jobs can be similarly defined) and also award the same levels of redundancy to the temp (after 12 weeks) as they would to permanent employees. This arrangement removes the disincentive to employ some-one on a permanent contract as well as any possibility of discriminating against the agency worker if s/he have been working effectively as a permanent employee. The Unions will want to see the measures adopted as law in the UK by April 2010 but business wants to wait until the EU deadline of the end of 2011.

Lord Mandelson will have a view. As will Harriet Harman. Somehow, I'm not sure they will be the same as eachothers.....

E-campaigning trend will decentralise UK political parties

The UK Centre-Left is preparing to play catch-up in a Centre-Right domintaed blogosphere. Leading weblog commmentators and campaigners from the world of New Labour - such as Derek Draper and Tom Watson MP - are coming together at a Conference organised by think-tank, Progress in London today, to examine how they can harness new media to transform the Labour Party's campaigning.

Of course, many enthusiasts for e-campaigners will point to Obama's remarkable Presidential election campaign as the model for using internet social networking as an effective way of reaching out to voters. Obama's team were highly successful in amassing a huge network of active supporters, prepared to rally more support for Barack Obama in their local communities.

The problem for this model in the UK, however, is that political parties here are much more centralised than they are in the US. Pretty much all political messages and means of campaigning are centrally engineered.

Could e-campaigning lead to decentralised political parties in the UK? Nick Anstead, lecturer in politicas at the University of East Anglia writes in February's Progress Magazine, "We are leaving the mass media age, which was defined by collective information consumption, and entering a period of selective and participatory media..... In order to compete in such an atomised environment, parties must also be decentralised."

As for the race to dominate the blogosphere, the Weekly Political Note from Bell Pottinger Public Affairs points to a stronger Centre-Right presence. It says, "Of those listed in "The Total Politics Top 100 UK Political Blogs", 48 are on the right of the political spectrum and just 30 on the left. The BPPA political note generously gives ResEuropa a mention - although I should point out that it is neither in the Top 100 nor is it politically aligned to either the left or the right!

As soon as the European Election campaigns start in earnest, no doubt we will see UK bloggers try to tackle some European issues. However, there is no sense yet that politicians of either side of the political fence have any real sense of knowing how they could use not just their blogs but other on-line social networking tools, to improve their electoral chances.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

McCreevy insists that the Commission should not regulate its way out of financial crisis

I was at a Conference today in Brussels organised by the European Commission to bring together widely varying views on how private equity and hedge funds should be regulated in the European Union (ostensibly in light of the current financial crisis - although in realty as a result from the European Parliament early last year). The Internal Market Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy - in a keynote speech continues to warn his fellow-policy makers that we cannot regulate our way out of the financial crisis and in any case private equity investment was never part of the problem - but can be part of the solution. Despite bring criticised from within the Commission for being too supportive of private equity, he again made a point of separating private equity from hedge funds. He knows very well it suits his opponents to some-times lump them together.

The Commissioner was generous enough to share his slot with another key-note speaker - his most ardent critic, former Danish PM and leading Socialist in the European Parliament, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. The Danish MEP continues to push for heavy regulation for the sector. He gave a withering attack on the European Venture Capital Association (EVCA) who, in its submission to the Commission's consultation said that any company that does not abide by the industry's code of conduct could be excluded from its membership. He took this as a reason for why self-regulation would not work - ie: the consequences for non-compliance are too small. (This was more than a little unfair to EVCA since their submission was highly detailed and well thought-through)

It was up to Sir Michael Rake to explain just exactly what self-regulation means in practice and how it should work. He should know - he is the Chairman of the private equity oversight group in the UK - the "Guidelines Monitoring Group", set up following the Walker Review. Since the Walker Review into private equity governance, the UK has set the standard in bringing about higher levels of transparency. Sir Michael told us that compliance is actually rather high. In other words, self-regulation actually works.

However, what Rasmussen really wants is more conditions to be put on Private Equity. The risk for the industry is that when the Commission does come up with its recommendations on improving transparency, that Socialist MEPs would add yet other cumbersome conditions. Rasmussen is clearly paving the way for this. Although he will not get very far while Charlie McCreevy is still in charge, he and his supporters in the Socialist Group may fare better under his successor before he or she puts their feet under the table this Autumn.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Internal Market Committee could disappear in European Parliament Shake-Up

I'm getting word that the all-powerful Internal Market and Consumer protection Committee, IMCO, could be disbanded as part of a radical shake-up of the European Parliament's committee system. There is a powerful lobby within parliament that wants to see the legal aspects of the committee go to the JURI Committee (legal affairs) while the responsibility for economic and industrial aspects of the internal market would go to ITRE (industry, research and energy).

ITRE would lose energy to Environment (ENVI) which in turn would lose responsibility for public health and food safety. A new committee would be formed for health issues.

A dedicated health committee is long over-due, in my opinion. The suggested reforms gives greater weight to health policy at EU level as initiatives such as the Health services directive pushes the sector higher up the EU agenda. Likewise, energy policy should, to some degree, be considered as part of the environmental agenda (although the Industry Committee must too play an important role in promoting the interests of the energy sector). IMCO has been showing some signs of dysfunctionality with consumer protection issues not being given the prominence that it might perhaps deserve. Although, given the sketchy information we have so far, its not entirely clear whether consumer protection policy is better served elsewhere in the parliament.

The idea is for health and consumer affairs to be dealt with in a single committee - effectively mirroring the responsibilities of the Commission's DG SANCO (health and consumer). Like Energy and Environment, it may seem like a natural fit but it could in fact be a recipe for constant conflict - the new committee would have to deal with the complexities of the pharmaceutical package, which includes directives on information to patients. The interests of the big pharma companies will not always be palatable to powerful consumer groups in Brussels. Again, the Industry committee would need to play a supportive role in forming a coherent parliamentary response to Commission initiatives that affect the sector.

None of this is a done deal and there will be some gnashing of teeth before any overhaul of the committee system is completed. Nonetheless, we can expect some big changes being put in place for the 2009-14 Parliament.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Could the Euro-Elections Finish Off Gordon?

Talk this week of another leadership challenge to Gordon Brown is rightly dismissed as absurd by the UK press. Nevertheless, it hasnt stopped the UK press from playing up the story. It stems from Deputy Labour Leader, Harriet Harman's drive to get Cabinet action to curb bonuses to bankers. So the theory goes; she is making noises to appeal to the left wing vote of her party and so, it follows, she is positioning herself to take over from Gordon should he fall under a bus. However, Harriet Harman has been doggedly pursuing the issue of city bonuses for nigh on a year. Does she want the job? Most likely, and she would be vying for the mainstream left support of the party along with Ed Balls (ignore the stories that his wife, Yvette Cooper would be the ideal Stop Harriet candidate - for Cooper, read Balls).

More seriously, the Labour High Command are bracing themselves for a dire outcome to the European Elections in June. If Labour come third, then Gordon Brown would be looking as weak and vulnerable as he was last Summer. The BNP are campaigning hard to increase the percentage of the vote they got in the Northwest in 2004 (6.4%) to the 9% they would need to secure an MEP in the region. This would be bad enough but if they won another seat in the Yorskshire and Humberside region, there would be no hiding place for the PM.

Even in this scenario, I don't think that there would be an organised coup against Gordon Brown. I have said that he will feel increasingly compelled to see through the full 5 year mandate to steer the economy through the recession and wait until May 2010 before he calls an election. However, it won't prevent certain colleagues from positioning themselves should he decide to quit early or at least raise their profile over the next 12 months.

Lord Mandelson's determination to see through his controversial proposals to reform Royal Mail against the wishes of a considerable body of Labour MPs will also be a dangerous flashpoint for the PM. Brown could shrug of any revolt over the Royal Mail bill and reinforce his credentials as a radical reformer of public services. It will be the European Elections that would inflict fresh wounds on an already beleagured Prime Minister. Since Harriet Harman is heading the election campaign, she is in real danger of being blamed should the results be disastrous.
"British Jobs for British Workers" - EU rules may need to be re-written to clarify workers rights

It will be interesting to see what the outcome will be at an unusual meeting between the EU's top business and trade union leaders on Wednesday (25th feb). The crunch summit between John Monks, general secretary of the European Trades Union Confederation (ETUC) and Ernest-Antoine Seilliere of BusinessEurope, hosted by the European Commission, will tackle the thorny issue of how best to prevent workers being undermined when a company from another Member State brings across its own employees to service a contract.

The Posting of Workers Directive, which has been in force since 1996, means that so-called "posted workers" would be covered by the host country's terms and conditions and that collective agreements reached between unions and employers should apply to posted workers. In other words, if you had to move country for a limited period of time, you should expect to enjoy the same benefits as host country workers as a minimum. However, a recent spate of wildcat strikes in the UK in protest of foreign companies eschewing the local labour force in favour of its own workers has got people asking whether the EU rules surrounding "posted workers" are perversely undermining employment standards; an indigenous workforce being sacrificed for the hgher cause of free movement of people in the European single market.

The ETUC blames a recent European Court of Justice judgement for undermining the founding principles of the "Posted Workers" directive. Suddenly, it seemed that the conditions set out in the directive were no longer the minimum that an employer was obliged to honour but rather the maximum. BusinessEurope will be adamant at Wednesday's meeting that no revision of the directive is necessary. They say that to go further would mean posted workers would be discriminated against. Wednesday's meeting will be critical for the European Commission which is itself reluctant to review the directive. The Commission says that the court ruling merely reflects the variety of industrial relations in member states. Although, the pressure will be hard to resist, particularly when the British Nationalist Party is making hay out of the issue in its Europan elections campaign, the Commission will want to avoid any risk of protectionist tendencies creeping in. I have to say that the Commission cannot just wish the problem away. The Services Directive will be implemented this year and this will only increase the amount of workers being posted to another Member State.

The Political Fall-Out in the UK

The row over the posted-workers at IREM, an Italian company, of work it is doing at Total oil refinery in Lincolnshire that has caused something that looks suspiciously like a rift in the Cabinet.

Lord Mandelson has defended the European directive that provides for the arrangements where workers are posted from one EU country to another, while Alan Johnson has said that the EU directive needs to be reviewed.

Nevertheless, the Government line now is that it has been assured Total that the work was open to British workers and that the terms and conditions for Italian workers than would have been to the local workforce.

So That's What They Meant By "Social Dumping"?

Some MEPs from the Socialist Group in the European Parliament have long argued for measures that prevent "social dumping" whereby companies take advantage of the gap between the conditions of the Member State of the guest company and those of the host state.

Now the European Court of Justice says that the Directive limits the level of protection guaranteed to posted workers. Neither the host Member State nor the social partners can ask for more favourable conditions, that go beyond the mandatory rules for minimum protection in the Directive. In effect, while it provides minimum employment protection, it does not guarantee for posted workers rights to be negotioated by collective bargaining in the host state where the employment conditions of host workers are better than the guest workers.

The ETUC wants Member States to revisit the directive and build in extra employment protections into the directive.

The Directive itself is not controversial and has been succesfully freeing up labour mobility for years. However a recent judgement on the directive - called "Laval, Rüffert and Commission v Luxembourg " *has rather negatively interpreted the local workers rights assumed in the directive.

The European Parliament adopted a report by a broad majority on 22 October 2008 ( “Challenges to collective agreements in the EU”) and the Commission’s forum on ’Workers’ rights and economic freedoms’ organised on 9 October 2008 also considered the need for a review. The ETUC is already mobilising support for a review of the directive since it believes the recent ECJ rulings have challenged the original intention of the European legislator.

Whats the Laval Judgement?

Laval, a Latvian company won the tender for construction work at a school in Sweden. They posted their workers from Latvia to Sweden to fulfil the contract. The Swedish unions started negotiations with Laval in order to sign a collective agreement with regard to wages and other working conditions. Laval did not want to pay the wages requested and so they signed a collective agreement in Latvia - and not Sweden. In response, the Swedish negotiations, the Swedish trade unions took action by blockading the construction site.

With regard to the right to strike as a fundamental right, the ECJ applied the "proportionality test". The Court said that collective action for the protection of the workers of the host State (Sweden) against "social dumping" (undermining the conditions for host state workers) may constitute an overriding reason of "public interest". The means of blockading action by a trade union falls within the objective of protecting workers. But in the actual case concerned the action could not be justified due to an incorrect implementation of the posting of workers Directive.Most of the judgement concerns the interpretation of this Directive. The ECJ found that negotiation at the place of work, on a case-by-case basis, when minimum rates of pay are not determined in accordance with one of the means provided for by the posting of workers directive, are not permissible under the Directive. The Court heavily criticised the Swedish collective bargaining system, saying that it created uncertainty for businesses since they had no way of knowing what the conditions they would have to guarantee before they would post their existing workers from Latvia to Sweden.

The ETUC wants regulation for the joint and several liability of main contractors and intermediaries, at least where the payment of tax, social security contributions and wages is concerned. The Commission produced a paper on this on 2 July 2008 but the ETUC says it doesn't go far enough. They are looking for further rights to transnational collective bargaining, not available under the Posting of Workers Directive.

A Resolution drafted by Jan Andersson MEP and adopted by the European Parliament in October last years says that the ECJ in recent rulings has interpreted the directive in such a way that effectively changes the directive from one setting minimum standards to one setting maximum standards.The Jan Andersson Resolution says it is up to Member States to implement the directive - the way it was intended to be since labour market legislation and rules concerning negotiations and collective agreements are the competence of Member States.At EU level it proposes:new legislative proposals to prevent conflicting interpretation in the future. This should include a partial review of the PWD, "with specific regard to the issues of applicable working conditions, pay levels, the principle of equal treatment of workers in the context of free movement of services, respect for different labour models and the duration of posting".re-casting the directive so that it is made explicit that it does not prohibit member states and social partners from "demanding more favourable conditions, aimed at equal treatment of workers, and that there are assurances that Community legislation can be implemented on the basis of all the existing labour market models."new EC measures to combat "letterbox-companies" "which have been created, sometimes even directly by the main contractor in the host country, for the sole purpose of carrying out business in the host country, in order to circumvent the full application of host country rules and regulations in particular with regard to wages and working condition"immediately adopt the Temporary Agency Workers Directive.