Europe and the building industry
There is a great deal wrong in the building industry: officially, everyone agrees that there should be equal pay for equal work for all workers, but in practice things aren't quite like that. Many people work illegally in the building trade and surveillance is inadequate. Often, it's international networks who provide these illegal workers. There is also the problem of people who, while formally self-employed, work in practice for only one employer and under working conditions much less favourable than those of actual employees. Surveillance must be improved, primarily on the national level, but I agree with the European building workers' federations when they say that the European Union also has a role to play in this.
I recently received a number of different trade union representatives in the framework of my attempts to improve my contacts with the European labour movement. I spoke with, amongst others, a representative of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers. One of the most important points for discussion was the undermining of the social rights of people who work in the building industry. Building workers are confronted too often by colleagues who are employed to do the same job, but on lower pay and under generally worse working conditions. Sometimes this is because they are working illegally. This can apply to indigenous workers, but in Europe there is a growing number of 'employment bureaux' which arrange things so that as an employer you can hire people from other EU member states who are prepared to do the work under what often prove to be quite wretched conditions. I agree with the unions when they argue that the practices of such subcontractors must be combated. This is made easier if the member states have the relevant data, and if they exchange such data and jointly analyse them.
The phenomenon of the 'self-employed person with no employees' is more complicated. As a self-employed person you have the right to offer your services throughout the EU and whatever rights employees have in the member states in question do not apply to you. Freedom of contract means that you can be engaged under less favourable conditions. You can more easily be sacked, because normal protection from dismissal will not apply. In many cases, however, such 'self-employed' people are entirely dependent on a single employer.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) assumes that you should be able to rely on what the EU specifies as the mandatory social security document, form E-101. But a form of this kind says nothing about the real situation. The unions argue, then, that the member state itself should be able to determine whether there is a relationship of dependence and therefore whether the person involved is genuinely self-employed or in reality an employee. In addition, it's often the case that supposedly self-employed people are provided by European networks of subcontractors. These must be vigorously tackled.
If we want to see people who need protection provided with it, then this kind of thing must be put high on the European agenda. But to date all I have heard is that Europe must become more competitive, via worsening conditions of employment – weaker protection from dismissal, for example.
Dennis de Jong is a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands.