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Long subcontracting chains foster injustice, says ETUC leader [Advocacy Lab Content]

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Long subcontracting chains lock workers out of rights, and lock injustices in, European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) General Secretary Esther Lynch said during a debate on abusive subcontracting practices in Europe.

Lynch was speaking at a 20 March debate in the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels. The discussion, organised by the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW), heard that subcontracting in construction is a major factor of exploitation, fraud, and other labour abuses when done for cost-cutting reasons.

A recent study from Aalborg University on the reality migrant workers face in the workplace was presented in the EP, where attendees heard from an Italian migrant worker speaking of his personal experience dealing with workplace exploitation. The event took place just before the organisation launched the second phase of its subcontracting campaign.

Lynch hailed the work of the report’s authors, highlighting a quote from a migrant worker who spoke of their boss only being interested in them working “faster, faster, faster” to the detriment of their safety and wellbeing. She spoke about how some employers use divide-and-conquer tactics to keep migrant workers and the local workforce apart so that they won’t be able to support each other to ensure better standards.

EFBWW General Secretary Tom Deleu had previously told Euractiv they often hear about systems being used to keep these workers apart from each other. “We need to find systems where workers can talk with each other on-site. Then we need to empower representatives of subcontractors,” he said.

Member states can clamp down on abusive subcontracting

Speaking during a panel discussion, the Head of the Unit for Labour Mobility at the European Commission, Gelu Calacean, said there already is subcontracting liability in the EU in a narrow area through the Posting of Workers Directive. He added that at the request of the Parliament, they are working on a new report that deals with the topic of subcontracting.

“I think our results are quite interesting because, under EU law, member states have the freedom to design subcontracting liability in several ways,” Calacean said during the debate. He added that most countries introduced subcontracting liability in the construction sector, except for a few outliers, including Denmark and Sweden.

The researchers on the migrant working environment in the Danish construction sector found that migrant workers experience enormous work pressures, with expectations to work at high speed for many hours and days in a row without necessary breaks. From 2016 to 2022, migrant workers accounted for about 37% of all fatal workplace accidents, despite only making up around 13% of the total employment over that same period.

One of the authors of the report, Charlotte Hooper Overgård presented some of their main findings in Brussels. She highlighted a quote from one of their interviewees who said employers only check the final quality of their work, ignoring the processes they followed as long as the result is acceptable.

Enforcement lacking, says MEP Vind

Head of the Unit of Enforcement and Analysis at the European Labour Authority (ELA) Pedro Assares Rodrigues said subcontracting is a widespread phenomenon that offers both opportunities and challenges. However, he said many of the findings of the Danish report align with the findings of the ELA’s own reports.

“The biggest problem we are dealing with is that a lot of the things we saw today already aren’t allowed. We have legislation against it. So it’s enforcement that isn’t good enough,” MEP Marianne Vind (S&D) told Euractiv, suggesting a minimum number of labour inspectors as a potential solution.

Award tenders offering quality, not cost-cutting

EFBWW’s Tom Deleu noted there was a lot of common ground during the debate on construction which he described as “the most beautiful industry”. He urged national authorities in Europe to ensure there are social clauses in contracts that are being awarded public money.

Public authorities could see that tenders are awarded to companies offering quality work and innovation rather than simply going for the lowest bidder. He expressed hope that these topics will feature in the June MEP elections and said they’ll be supporting the democratic forces as the far right and populist right “can never be the answer”.

An Italian construction worker, Giovanni, was invited to the event to give a first-hand account of the exploitation he experienced while working in Denmark. He said he was promised a decent salary but ended up working up to 11 hours a day while only being paid for six. He alleged the company got away with this by filling timesheets on his behalf that hid the actual amount of hours he worked from inspectors.

“I was angry as I thought I would earn more money by going abroad,” he said. He told Euractiv he felt the Brussels event’s attendees understood his point of view but urged the EU to take action as different member states approach the issue differently.

“It’s important we find a system that prevents people from being deceived and allows them to understand how to intervene. Not just for Italians but for all the different workers that come. I’ve had a dark year (…),” Giovanni told Euractiv.

[By Christoph Schwaiger I Edited by Brian Maguire | Euractiv’s Advocacy Lab ]

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