The most audacious dreams of the European government of mobility seem to come true in the regulation on the «posting of workers», ruled by a 1996 directive, recently revised by a reform promoted by the inexhaustible Macron. The collapse of the Schengen agreement has revealed that there is an inseparable link between what the agreement meant to separate, that is, global migrations, on the one hand, and mobility within the European Union, on the other. It is not true that only the first ones are subject to an increasingly strict control, while the second one is free and unconstrained. In the end, the true face of the European common market has manifested itself for European citizens as well, accused of being an unwanted burden on the other states’ treasuries and of practicing «welfare tourism». The answer to those who claim to use the freedom of movement for their own benefit is: either you demonstrate your immediate usefulness and expendability, or you do not have the right to stay. We must start from here to understand the political centrality of posted workers within the process of the European logistical integration.
So, who are the posted workers? They are multinational workers who move within the borders of the EU in search of higher wages than the one they can get at home. They work for a limited period of time in a EU member State different from the one in which they are normally employed, i.e. they are «lent» by the company who hires them to a company of another State. This «loan» of labor is a form of outsourcing by now commonly used, which can also be considered a sort of «local relocation», already widely experimented with migrants: part of the work is done by workers who usually come from countries where the labor cost is lower and whose bargaining power has been reduced by them crossing the borders. In 2014, according to the European Policy Center, while internal EU migrants were 7 million – about 3.3% of the labor force – in Europe there were 1.92 million posted workers. A figure that becomes significant if one looks at its exponential growth following the enlargement of the Union to the East. In fact, the number of posted workers has doubled since 2010, reaching up to 2.3 million in 2016, according to the latest data available. In any case, the numbers understate the overall labor mobility in the EU. Germany hosts the largest number of posted workers, followed by France and Belgium. The German case is undoubtedly the most significant, not only because almost half a million workers are posted on its territory, but also because most of them come from countries that joined the EU recently. In 2014, almost 2% of the working-age Poles were posted to Germany. These figures become even clearer when one observes the incidence of posted work in some specific sectors. If we consider the major German meat industry, we see that after the enlargement of the EU the slaughterhouses reduced the permanent labor force to a minimum: between 40 and 60% out of the approximately 30,000 workers became temp or posted workers, many of them coming from Eastern Europe, in particular from Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. These data must be read together with those relating to the composition of the posted work. Posted workers are predominantly industrial workers, mostly employed in the construction, road transport and manufacturing sectors. These data contradict the hypothesis according to which the ongoing transformations of the technical and political organization of labor point at the evanescence of industrial labor. Posted work and the mass of workers moved by it prevent us from looking at Europe only from the center of our own city and from identifying the logistical transformations with the «new jobs» which, thanks to their novelty, should constitute an undisputed vanguard of the struggles.
The posting of workers, the debate over its regulation and the relationship between supranational and national legislation on the matter is therefore a window on today’s Europe: while Europe is grappling with its political disintegration, the European integration is proceeding thanks to the government of labor that establishes hierarchies among its States, on the basis of the differences of their wage levels, economic policies and welfare systems. The European legislation on posted work is telling of the way in which the EU and its States govern mobility at the lowest price possible and with the maximum benefit for the bosses, in terms of costs, «just in time» availability and «to the point» placement. One has a given work at a specific moment and place, and then everyone back home. Besides, the legal category of posted worker is often used to cover a series of behaviors at the limits of legality. It intervenes in situations with a high rate of informality and serves to frame the same workers in lower wage levels. Letter-box companies are created to label native workers or migrant workers as posted workers, or to segment the workforce on a national basis within the same construction site and production chain, in order to make communication among workers more difficult and avoid common claims. Classifying migrant workers as posted workers is much more common in countries of Northern Europe, where it helps circumventing the standards granted by the national labor code, while the phenomenon is marginal in countries like Italy, where the strong presence of illegal and informal labor allows in itself to circumvent the few legal restrictions. Posting thus makes it possible to exploit the wage differentials between countries more or less legally and to decrease or increase the labor provision according to the needs of the moment, by juggling between legal regimes and administrative boundaries.
As a response to the unconstrained mobility that the single market could offer in principle, posting allows for low-cost, on demand work, and prevents the host state from having to respond politically to the working conditions or from taking on the «burden» of welfare. As a matter of fact, in the posting of workers the overall wage is decomposed and reassembled in the transnational space: the boss pays the wage directly in the State in which the work is provided, but at a lower price than the average local wage, while the portion of the wage that should pay for social benefits is paid on the basis of the contribution rates of the country of departure, with a net saving in terms of the whole wage. For a posted worker the wage thus obtained is generally higher than what he or she would get in the country of origin, thanks to a supposedly compulsory travel allowance, which however is often included in the wage or not paid at all. Moreover, the costs of reproducing the labor force, from the place in a dormitory to the medical insurances, are often subtracted from the wage directly by the employer and so are entirely borne by the workers and are therefore individualized. The logistical integration also marks a breakthrough compared to the ruthless hunt for «welfare tourists» carried out by European countries in the past years. As a matter of fact, here the denial of welfare is directly provided for by the labor contract and the enjoyment of social rights is deferred to the countries of origin, where they are usually recognized on a very limited basis.
The way in which the EU frames the posting of workers helps highlighting the features of its logistical integration: the aim is to create a space, free from obstacles, favoring the dynamic valorization of capital. The old national labour codes become an incidental variable in front of the so-called «fair competition» principle that puts workers and employers on the same level. As a matter of fact, posting is regulated by the principles of free circulation of services and by the principles of companies’ right of establishment, two pillars of European constitution. States are formally compelled to grant that posted workers have «a nucleus of mandatory rules for minimum protection» in the host country, including minimum wage, compliance to collective agreements, if universally valid, limits to the workday, health and safety, minimum rest time and non-discrimination between men and women. The unquestionable rules of integration uses those nucleus of rules to make posted work even more informal, preventing workers from having more than the minimum required, which becomes the maximum they can ever aspire to.
The framing of posted work in the frame of the provision of a service shows that the prevailing interest is, as always, the removal of all obstacles created by social rights or by national work regulations: they are nothing but a violation of the «freedom of competition». A consolidated tendency is here at play: an increasing part of the workers has to provide their labor in the legal and political shape of a «service». This means that the command on posted work is located in the field of commercial law, circumventing and suppressing the validity of the labour law. Against this backdrop, even the presence of a national minimum wage tends to set, more than a minimum, a maximum not to be overcome. Only a struggle for an overall wage on a European scale can confront this informalisation of labor, its equivalence to a service, and prevent the logistical integration from exploiting wage and social contribution differentials. Only with a collective demand counteracting the boundaries of wage we can fight the power that claims to put millions of men and women at its service.
That posted workers are an essential figure in the European logistical reconfiguration is proved by Macron’s efforts to put his seal on the current fight for the redefinition of the posting of workers, aiming at reestablishing the French and German control over the Union. After a 2014 Enforcement Directive, a concentration of good will on transparency and fight against abuses, which still keeps untouched the purpose of the 1996 directive, in 2016 a proposal to review the current directive was made, and an agreement was found, excluding the thorny road transport sector. This agreement announces the need for combining freedom of providing services and social rights. It also proposes to review the nucleus of mandatory rules, by substituting minimum wage with a fair retribution and by including bonuses and compensations also for posted workers guaranteed by laws or collective agreements.
Theoretically, then, equality of treatment between posted workers and others should be granted. Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary immediately replied that such a measure would cancel the competitive advantages of «their» posted workers and declared it as an illegitimate intrusion of the Union in wages’ regulation. The reform Commission reassured everyone by affirming the eternal truth according to which each member States, on a national level, have the task to define «the notion of retribution». This means that, while they are considered the greatest responsible of the political disintegration of the European Union, States are useful each time it is necessary to close every space for gaining higher wages.
The current political clash confirms that the construction of a competition regime does not mean the simple removal of obstacles and barriers, but it involves constant operation of government, especially when men and women, through their mobility, risk taking advantage of the freedom of circulation. States cannot run the risk of losing this game. Moreover, Macron, tries to sell this measure as a protection of posted workers, while he is destroying law regulations by decree at home, by this revealing to what extent the government of work is crucial in the current European struggle. The reform of the posting of workers directive present itself as a means to overcome the fragmentation due to wage and welfare differences of the European labor force. Its real aim is to reduce the growing mobility of labor to a mere question to be dealt with by State and enterprises, for the benefit of the calculation of profit.
The complete and unconditioned support granted to Macron by the European Trade Union Organization shows once more that trade union action, in its timid attempt to go beyond the national space, does not understand the logistic logic of fragmentation, grounded in a continuous movements of rules and boundaries. Centralizing the government over labour at the European level cannot be the answer to the always recurring possibility of wage dumping and competition among countries. The problem is the scale, the strength and the diffusion of workers’ initiative, not the establishment of rules that will assure the very absence of this initiative. Because of its inability to grasp the European logistical integration, trade unions’ practice cannot live up to the multinational workers’ movements searching for higher wages, escaping the most brutal exploitation and valorizing themselves by their continuous crossing of borders and rules. In regard to this mass movement, trade unions, while denouncing wage dumping, keep solving specific cases of individual irregularities or keep playing their leading role in company-level bargaining, without facing the general question. By this, they keep pursuing their specific logistics: segmentation of labor market with protection for «their» members. All the other are left to go to the slaughterhouse. Sure as hell.
The Transnational Social Strike project starts from the acknowledgment that what is needed does not exist. We are in the «golden age» of the European logistical integration and multinational workers are still unable to oppose to it their collective perspective. In front of this, we can insist on reducing to our scale and to our possible intervention the overall logistical reorganization of the command on labour, by this contributing to deepen the divisions used to put at the service a transnational workforce. Or, we can finally make a move towards the construction of a collective strength and a collective perspective against the wage, welfare and residence permit boundaries, collecting the claim for power daily expressed by the movements of millions of women and men, and putting apart, once and for all, the apparent certainties of our own city, our own territory and the national scale.