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27th Feb 2024

Interview

Non-EU workers to fill gaps 'not a plan', warns union boss

  • 'Getting a whole new group of people who you can treat badly until they get sick of it is not a plan,' EU trade union chief Esther Lynch warns (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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Attracting people from outside the EU to fill its acute labour shortages is not a "fair" solution for workers, European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) general secretary Esther Lynch has told EUobserver in an interview, saying the drive to fill employment gaps has to start at home.

"We are absolutely not against labour migration (...) but we don't want to create an exploitative tool in the hands of employers," Lynch said, referring to the EU Talent Pool, an online matching platform to connect non-EU workers with employers.

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Last November, the EU executive proposed to create the tool to tackle labour shortages, but also to discourage illegal migration, according to EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas.

"Our drive to fill labour market gaps has to start at home (...) but labour migration can be an important complementary means of filling persistent gaps," Schinas said.

Schinas added that while there is untapped potential in the EU's domestic workforce, it is simply "not enough" to solve the problem — so the commission's solution is to turn to legal migrants to fill the vacancies.

Unemployment in the EU is at a record low (six percent), but 2.7 percent of jobs are still unfilled, meaning that not everyone who wants a job has one — especially in construction, healthcare, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

For the EU trade union chief, the question to be asked is whether these jobs are genuinely impossible to fill from the domestic labour force: would they be filled if they were well paid, if they had decent working conditions, or if they were well served by transport, for example?

Lynch believes that solutions proposed by unions are not seen by employers as being as appealing as the prospect of access to non-EU labour markets — where they can employ people at lower wages and with worse working conditions.

"That's not fair on the worker," she noted.

According to an ETUC analysis, the sectors facing the worst labour shortages pay their workers on average nine percent less than those where it is easier to recruit.

The largest gaps between the industries with the most and least shortages were recorded in Italy (€4.17 per hour), Luxembourg (€4.16), and Germany (€3.26).

So, on the one hand, pay is one of the factors keeping workers out of these jobs, and on the other, working conditions have become "so harsh", argues Lynch, citing the profession of truck driver as an example.

Truck drivers

There are currently more than 233,000 unfilled truck driving jobs in Europe and by 2028 this figure is expected to rise to 745,000 (17 percent of all jobs), according to the latest report from the International Road Transport Union (IRU).

"You have a job where the income is precarious, where very often there is no social security and no protection as a worker, and then you don't even have a toilet or a nice place to sleep," the EU trade union chief said, highlighting the insecurities.

Earlier this year, more than 60 truck drivers from outside the EU (mainly from Georgia and Uzbekistan) took action in Germany over abusive working conditions and unpaid wages.

"There is a blatant systemic issue of exploitation in the European transport sector," said MEP Gaby Bischoff (Socialists & Democrats) back in April. "This shows that the EU measures, which are in place to protect all workers, are not properly applied and partly not sufficient".

The ETUC proposes recognising and punishing some of these problems as actual crimes, and reinforcing unannounced inspections and the European Labour Authority's role in identifying the cross-border dimension of these abuses.

"In many member states, the worst that happens to an employer who doesn't pay their workers is that they get brought to court and told to pay the wages," said Lynch, calling for wage theft to be recognised as a crime.

And while each sector has its own particularities, the current socio-economic context places additional pressures on all workers, with housing unaffordable for many, or childcare services inadequate or inaccessible, to name but a few.

"There's a lot that's wrong in the way we treat workers, and just getting a whole new group of people who you can treat badly until they get sick of it is not a plan," Lynch warns, in the run-up to the EU elections (6-9 June 2024).

With interest in the European elections growing and turnout expected to be higher than in the 2019 elections, the EU trade union chief says politicians and lawmakers should also focus on changing things before then, not just after.

"It's a mistake to think that you can make us, the working people, wait until everything else is fixed," Lynch concluded.

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