EU offer on migrant benefits brake ignores workers’ problems
Today Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, published draft proposals on Cameron’s EU renegotiation agenda which will be discussed at the EU summit on 18 -19 February. If the other EU Member States at this summit approve these proposals, it is very likely the government will announce a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU in June.
Cameron’s most high profile, and most vexed, demand has been to stop in-work benefits for EU migrants for four years.
What does today’s document offer Cameron on this?
It proposes changes to the rules on free movement of workers to:
‘provide for an alert and safeguard mechanism that responds to situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time.’
EU states wishing to use this mechanism would need to:
‘notify the [European] Commission and the [European] Council that such an exceptional situation exists on a scale that affects essential aspects of its social security system, including the primary purpose of its in-work benefits system…are putting an excessive pressure on the proper functioning of its public services.’
If the European Council is satisfied such a situation exists, it would be able to introduced an ‘implementing act’ that would allow EU states to ‘limit the access of Union workers newly entering its labour market to in-work benefits for a total period of up to four years from the commencement of employment.’
Crucially for Cameron, the proposal states that the UK would automatically be approved to trigger such a safeguard, or ‘emergency brake’ as it’s also been called, because:
‘the European Commission considers that the kind of information provided to it by the United Kingdom shows the type of exceptional situation that the proposed safeguard mechanism is intended to cover exists in the United Kingdom today.’
There are question marks as to whether this offer will satisfy Eurosceptic MPs who are already complaining it doesn’t go far enough, however, the most important point for workers about the proposals, and Cameron’s renegotiation demands is that they don’t address the cause of the hardship they are facing at work and in their communities.
Let’s look at why.
The proposals do nothing about low pay or precarious contracts
TUC polling research has shown the single biggest concern about migration is associated with employers using migrant workers as a cheap, exploitable form of labour. Perhaps not surprising, as the UK has the lowest level of employment protection in Europe. This has encouraged employers to take on migrants on temporary contracts where they have less rights than those on stable contracts. Increasingly British workers are being hired on short-hours or zero hours contracts to undercut other British workers on stable contracts too, with almost 1.7 million people now on some form of temporary contract.
The fact that almost three million UK-born workers are having to claim in-work benefits also shows that too many employers are getting away with paying their workers, migrant or British, too little.
Making migrant workers poorer by taking away their in-work benefits won’t make other workers better off, it simply encourages bad bosses to divide the workforce on the grounds of pay.
The proposals do nothing about crippling cuts facing public services
The government’s own figures from the DWP from February 2015 show that only about 6% of welfare benefits are claimed by EU migrants, which is not surprising as they are already restricted from claiming benefits until they have lived in the UK for a period of time and fulfilled other criteria, such as demonstrating they are looking for a job in order to get unemployment benefits.
DWP statistics suggest that there were 266,000 EU migrants in Britain claiming in-work benefits in February 2015 which amount to about £530 million. To put this in proportion, the amount the government has announced it will cut from local authority budgets to deliver essential public services is £18 billion. The Local Government Authority has said that even if councils close every children’s centre and library and turn off every street light, they still won’t be able to function after these cuts. While obviously cuts are stretching health and social services to breaking point.
It is plain mendacity for the government to blame migrants for the terrible squeeze on public services that their own cuts have caused while failing to collect billions in taxes from multinational companies like Google and Apple that could be used for investment in public services. Furthermore, EU workers contribute to our taxes by paying VAT and national insurance from their wages. For the European Council to give credibility to such claims by the UK government is very regrettable and sets a dangerous precedent for Member States to get away with other anti-migrant policies on the grounds of spurious claims without the need for an independent, and democratically accountable, evaluation to be carried out first.
A positive solution
Solving workers’ anxieties around migration requires serious action on low pay and insecure work. Employers need to work with unions to agree to decent levels of pay, and decent contracts for their workers so they are not working too few hours to make ends meet. This needs to happen not just in Britain but across the EU, as low wages and lack of decent jobs is currently forcing many to leave countries in other parts of Europe to work in countries like Britain and Germany. This is why it is not just the TUC but unions across Europe that are calling for a pay rise across Europe.
Meanwhile, areas feeling the pain of cuts to public services requires austerity to be reversed and urgent investment by the government.
In fact, there are EU funds available to the UK money to support such investment in the shape of the European Social Fund, but the UK has refused to draw on these funds. By contrast, Germany is using European Social Fund money to support regions with increased number of migrants, as well as to support trade unions to set up offices to offer migrant workers advice to protect them from undercutting.
Today, Frances O’Grady said of the proposals:
‘Tinkering with benefits for poorly-paid migrant workers won’t address the real challenge of ensuring that everyone who works gets a fair day’s pay…What people in Britain want from the EU is decent jobs and good wages, fairness at work and sustainable growth.’