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Another triumph for the sweatshop

John Harris is right to express indignation at the latest negotiating "triumph" in Britain's seemingly endless struggles with its European Union partners. He is also right to deplore the fact that the British media almost totally failed to report a major story which speaks volumes for the kind of government Gordon Brown is leading.

Unfortunately this is only another chapter in a story of reaction policies pursued by New Labour in a consistent effort to slow or if possible derail any attempt to build a social Europe. A few weeks ago it was the UK refusal to be bound by the provisions of the charter of fundamental rights as part of the proposed new EU reform treaty.

The extraordinary point about this is that all other EU citizens - including British citizens living in other EU countries - will be able to take full advantage of the provisions of these modest and basic legal rights. But it is all too much for this allegedly "Labour" government.

Now it is the British block on a decision favoured by an overwhelming majority of other EU governments to implement a new directive giving some of the same rights enjoyed by full-time employees to temporary or agency employed workers.

The UK campaign against the legislation comes in spite of the fact that the British labour force includes a growing number of part-time workers - particularly migrant workers - some of whose terms and conditions of employment are more reminiscent of Victorian times than the 21st century. Of course over the years this government has frequently set its face against many of the most fundamental working rights reforms which enjoy the support of pretty well every other EU government. The only other government to demand an "opt out" from the charter of fundamental rights was the bizarre administration of the Kaczynski twins in Poland which has now, thankfully, been booted out of office.

The irony in all of this is that Brown can really only lose the ratification of the reform treaty in the House of Commons if he loses the support of sufficient Labour MPs. But even the more Eurosceptic Labour MPs fully support both the charter and the improved rights for part-time workers. The trade unions - including their most moderate leaders - are outraged by the arrogant determination of New Labour to pursue Margaret Thatcher's jihad against any fragment of a "social Europe". But trade unionists need to understand that without the EU reform treaty they will be in a weaker position to prevent the kind of British veto tactics we have seen over the rights charter and the measures to help part-time workers.

Faced with objections to their stance UK ministers merely chant the same litany about their determination to protect "Britain's competitiveness". As John Harris notes they are again singing from a hymn sheet provided for New Labour by its "business" mentors. Of course this kind of propaganda seeking to protect backward British labour market conditions ignores one fundamental fact about competitiveness: the Nordic countries which have spearheaded the charter and the rights directive score far higher in global measurement of competitiveness than the UK.

The question is: for how long will the Labour party - or what is left of it - tolerate this hypocrisy? At what point will someone - anyone - in the Labour party say "enough is enough?" This issue will come back on the table in Brussels early next year. When that happens the government must not be left to continue its wrecking tactics on measures designed to bring some civilised standards to the most vulnerable of workers by the silence of the media and the political class.

John Palmer

Article first published here

If you would like to share your ideas and issues on how we can shape more equal and democratic policies through Europe, why not participate in the PES Manifesto consultation? Compass will be organising workshops on this in the new year. If you are interested, please email noel.hatch1@gmail.com.


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