Rue Royale 45, 1st floor, 1000 Brussels, Belgium


Successful debate on third national workers in construction


Today (6/11/2019), the EFBWW organized a stimulating debate on the increasing number of third country national workers in the European construction industry. A panel composed by practioners, labour inspectorate and academia discussed the challenges, solutions and actions.

Being extremely labour-intensive, the European construction sector has a long tradition of relying on substantial number of cross-border migrant workers. The European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW) is striving to pursue a consistent policy aimed at ensuring that workers migrate in a decent, orderly fashion. Essentially, this policy hinges on the fundamental principle that ALL workers are entitled to equal treatment, meaning equal pay for equal work in the same workplace.

However, this principle is not easy to apply in the context of cross-border migration. As is widely known, experience has shown that migrant workers in the construction sector are more likely to be affected by the phenomenon of social dumping. The EFBWW stresses that this practice entails exploiting workers who cross borders temporarily and subjecting them to social fraud, abuse and circumventions of applicable regulations. It is also important to remember that cross-border social dumping is almost always organised by intermediaries and companies seeking ever cheaper labour, who consistently exploit weaknesses in the system, e.g. unclear regulations, poor monitoring or weak enforcement.

In recent years, a new – and increasingly prevalent – trend has emerged on the European labour market. For about five years now, the number of construction workers from non-EU countries (third-country workers) has been rising steadily. This is a significant trend that merits very close attention. Although it is not entirely clear just how many third-country workers are active in our sector right now, we are reliably informed (by people in the field) that they number in the thousands. They come from many different countries, including Bosnia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Ukraine and Vietnam, and we know that most of them arrive in the EU through various Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs). There is nothing odd about this in itself, for the construction sector in many CEECs has experienced tremendous growth in recent years and there is a severe shortage of (skilled) construction workers. Many construction workers from CEECs, especially qualified construction specialists, left their countries years ago and have built a future in Western Europe. Only a small percentage of these workers return to their countries of origin, partly because wages there are still far too low, and partly because they are gradually integrating into the Western European labour market.

Worker migration is a constant feature of the construction sector, with some companies always on the lookout for cheap labour. When we consider this in conjunction with our knowledge and experience of cross-border social dumping in the context of EU workers temporarily posted to other EU Member States, alarm bells start ringing. The sharp rise in third-country workers on the European labour market needs to be taken seriously. Moreover, we must quickly determine which methods are required to prevent new forms of social dumping. The key lesson learned from the past is that we must always prevent social dumping. As trade unions, we cannot afford to simply react to problems as and when they occur.

That said, the employment of third-country workers is an exceptional labour market phenomenon, characterised by very diverse and extremely opaque rules on gaining access to the European labour market. Moreover, there are many legal and illegal ways of entering the EU and working there. These include:

·       entering on a temporary tourist visa and then working anyway;

·       entering and working under specific legislation adopted by the host country;

·       entering and working under a temporary scheme governing seasonal work.

The EFBWW is also aware that there are intermediary agencies in third countries that specialise in offering potential workers jobs in the EU. Workers often pay significant sums of money for a potential job in the EU, only to end up in the hands of traffickers of cheap labour.

Unfortunately, in many CEECs there is insufficient monitoring and enforcement regarding the employment of third-country workers, with the result that many workers slip off the official radar, some working legally in their host country, but others disappearing into illicit employment or going on to work in another European country.

The EFBWW is deeply concerned about workers in the latter two categories in particular. The mechanisms used to exploit foreign workers are widely known and include failure to pay the wage stipulated by law or a collective agreement; non-payment of overtime and bonuses; non-awarding of leave and compensation; illegal wage deductions; absence of social protection; total lack of health and safety protection for workers; poor accommodation and social isolation.

A further major problem is that the fundamental differences faced by workers from third countries are far greater than for workers from EU Member States. For instance, the pay gap between the workers’ country of origin and the host country is much larger, and they usually know very little about their rights in the host country. This leaves these workers far more vulnerable to social exploitation.

The EFBWW is sent forceful evidence of third-country workers being employed via shadowy intermediaries and staff leasing agencies. If we wish to avoid a second wave of social dumping in the European construction sector, we need to take the necessary measures quickly and appropriately.