By Stan Crooke
The EU principle of freedom of movement of labour (i.e. that the citizens of any state which is a member of the EU have an automatic right to work in another EU state) will not be extended in the UK, to cover Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, when their countries become members of the EU on 1 January 2007.
The ban is to remain in force for seven years, and workers and employers who breach the ban will be liable to on-the-spot fines of up to £1,000.
The ban will not be a total one. Bulgarians and Romanians will be able to work in the UK if they are self-employed or highly skilled. Bulgarian and Romanian students in the UK will still be allowed to work part-time. And 20,000 jobs are to be reserved for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals in agriculture and food-processing. Also industries which can demonstrate that they are suffering from labour shortages will be able to press the government to relax the ban.
This ban on Bulgarian and Romanian workers contrasts with the government’s earlier decision to allow free movement of labour for nationals of the eight Eastern European states (the so-called A8 states) which joined the EU in May 2004. So what has changed?
Politically, the ban is motivated by accommodation to nationalism and racism. Economically, it is motivated by subservience to the demands of employers.
The tabloid press presents an image of Britain being overrun by foreigners. According to opinion polls, 75% of voters want tougher immigration controls. EU migrant workers may lag behind Muslims and asylum-seekers as a “theme” of racist agitation, but they are still perceived as a “threat” to “Britishness” and “British jobs”.
In terms of economic policies, the government has fallen in behind the assessments of big business and employers’ organisations that on the economic need for migrant labour. Employers were keen to have workers from the A8 nationals in 2004. They calculated — correctly, from their own point of view — that the A8 states could provide a necessary source of cheap labour. But now, with continued migration by nationals of the A8 states, employers’ organisations have calculated that there is no need to increase the supply of unskilled labour. Thus, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the British Hospitality Association, and the Federation of Small Businesses have all issued statements supporting the government’s decision.
Critics of the government’s ban on Bulgarian and Romanian workers have shared the government’s starting point (i.e. don’t annoy the racists, and adapt policies to what employers want) but have drawn different conclusions.
Critics have said that the ban is not necessary — very few Bulgarian and Romanian workers would come to work in Britain anyway. (Bulgarian migrant workers normally head for Spain, Italy and Germany, while Romanians usually go to Italy and Spain.) But this argument rests on the idea that migration is a “bad thing”.
A second argument against a ban is that the government and employers’ organisation have miscalculated the demand for unskilled labour. The National Farmers’ Union, for example, has argued that the ban could lead to labour shortages in agriculture. Again, the starting point here is the same as the government’s — employers’ needs must be met.
Others have suggested the ban will not work. Bulgarians and Romanians will arrive in the UK as visitors and then “disappear” into the “black economy”. (This is highly likely.) The latter argument is the position taken by the TUC. The statement issued by the TUC in response to the announcement of the ban completely sidestepped the issue of the ban itself, claimed that the government’s position “ran the risk of having the opposite effect of that which is intended”, and warned that workers’ legal rights could be undermined.
It is legitimate to point out how the ban will force Bulgarian and Romanian workers “underground”, where they will be denied all access to employment rights. But the ban should also be opposed simply for what it is: a denial to Bulgarian and Romanian workers of freedom of movement in the EU.
And, needless to say, no comparable restrictions will be imposed on the business activities of Bulgarian and Romanian bosses.