Monday, March 11, 2013

Why scrapping labour laws is barbaric

Edmund Stoiber once caused something of an uproar when he said "unfortunately, not everyone in Germany is as intelligent as in Bavaria".

Though he no longer presides over that picturesque state, the veteran politician retains considerable clout. And he continues to behave with the same kind of braggadocio.

Stoiber now heads a "high-level" group set up by the European Commission to advise on how "administrative burdens" faced by business can be reduced. Last year, he became embroiled in a mini-controversy when it emerged that he had taken up the cudgels against an anti-smoking law then under preparation in Brussels because the Bavarian tobacco industry had asked him to.

Most of his other recent activities have barely received any scrutiny in the mainstream press. This is inexcusable. Stoiber and his acolytes are taking an "everything must go" approach to social and environmental protections. We, journalists, should be questioning why this bonfire of regulations is occurring, not sitting back until every measure that progressive movements have fought for turns to ash.

In January, the group met in Berlin. One of the main items on its agenda was a plan of action for 2013. Drafted by Michael Gibbons, a former big cheese in the firm Powergen who has campaigned for the privatisation of Britain's electricity services, the paper lists a range of measures that irk captains of industry. They include proposals on rights for people with disabilities, climate change, nuclear safety, maximum working time and even the occupational hazards of hairdressers. (I swear that I didn't make the last one up).

Gibbons has recommended that Stoiber's group "take the earliest opportunity to challenge [European] commissioners, where there is maximum scope for advising on files".

Stoiber likes to pose as a defender of small firms, which often find their ambitions thwarted by "bureaucratic stop-signs" (a phrase he used in a 2012 publication). Yet his group isn't exactly chockfull of cottage industry champions. The nine members of it currently named on the European Commission's website include nominees from BusinessEurope and the European Policy Centre, both of which are lobby outfits (or in the EPC's case a lobby outfit masquerading as a "think tank") funded by major corporations. Among the others on the group are Roland Berger, head of the eponymous consultancy.

No seats have been allocated to trade unionists or low-paid workers. (In an earlier incarnation, the group had one environmentalist and one consumer rights advocate but they are not among the nine currently named).

José Manuel Barroso and his team are playing the same kind of game as Stoiber.

As part of preparations for a summit of the Union's leaders this month, the Commission has identified the "top ten" most burdensome laws affecting small and medium-sized companies.

I detest gambling but knew it would be safe to bet on the items that appeared on this list before it was published. So I wasn't surprised that it was identical to one drawn up by UEAPME, the "voice" of small firms. This association wants to bin - or dramatically weaken - rules on food hygiene, health and safety of employees and waste management.

Parrots for big business

I don't believe that UEAPME is solely interested in making life easier for what Americans call "mom and pop stores". Nor do I take seriously the impression it gives of simply wanting a restaurant with three waiters to be given greater leeway than McDonald's when hiring and firing staff.

UEAPME is parroting exactly the same line as BusinessEurope, which is dominated by much larger firms. In 2008, BusinessEurope published the findings of a survey of small and medium-sized companies carried out for it by the "market researchers" KPMG. Predictably, it said that four out of every five respondents wanted labour laws to be eviscerated. In particular, they wanted to be allowed to pressurise their staff into slaving away for longer hours.

There is little doubt that the EU is turning uglier. When challenged about the orientation of the Union's economic policies, federalists have tended to respond by pointing out that important advances for workers have been introduced because of decisions taken in Brussels. In truth, these advances were the result of a hard struggle by ordinary people, not pangs of conscience by an elite. I concede, nonetheless, that some positive changes have resulted from EU laws.

A formidable foe

The working time dossier is a case in point. In 1993, the EU's governments agreed that on average employees shouldn't be required to clock in more than 48 hours per week. This wasn't overly generous, by any stretch of the imagination: assuming one works five days a week, a 48-hour limit translates as nearly 10 hours a day, which is hardly conducive to rearing a young family.

Employers, though, have kept on insinuating that Europe is turning into a continent of slackers because of this law. Even though the European Commission introduced this law, it is now conniving with big (and small) business to wreck it and other advances in the name of "competitiveness". José Manuel Barroso is one of the most formidable foes that the workers of Europe have faced in decades.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Competitiveness is a pernicious dogma. Adherents invoke this dogma to drive bulldozers through those achievements that we, as Europeans, should take most pride in.

The "administrative burdens" that businesses love to carp about are really markers of civilisation. Eliminating social and environmental protections is a sign of barbarism.

•First published by, 10-17 March 2013

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