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Billionaire Ratan Tata doesn’t care too much for British workers. For one thing they have a pesky habit of going home when their working hours are up. He said that in India “if you are in a crisis, if it means working to midnight, you would do it”. British workers were unwilling to stay after hours to meet with him, if it meant missing the train home, he wined, after sacking 8 per cent of his company’s UK workforce. One can hardly expect Mr Tata to empathise with those who need to get the train home from work, and who would appreciate the chance to eat dinner before going to bed.
Mr Tata, I am sure, will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of next week’s trade negotiations. From Monday to Wednesday the EU and India will be negotiating a new free trade agreement, which aims to get rid of 90% of tariffs, and open up one another’s markets in all manner of ways. Meanwhile Indian company’s operating in the UK will be able to bring in what the RMT’s Brian Denny rightly terms bonded labour. It will be easier than ever to circumvent those workers with an aggravating interest in clocking off. What is already a race to the bottom, will become a sprint.
This is very much a bosses deal. What attracts the EU to the table, is not so much the desire to export goods made in Europe. Rather, it is primarily access to public procurement contracts – so that European companies can benefit from Indian privatisation. They are demanding better access to the banking sector, and better conditions for foreign investors. Also thrown in to the deal are European demands that India gets heavy on pharmaceutical patents – something that has lead to mass protests from cancer sufferers in India. In return companies operating in India- where wages are a fraction of those in Europe – will have unprecedented access to EU markets.
What has particularly concerned trade unionists in Britain is that the deal will ensure there is no cap on the number of “inter-company transfers” – whereby Indian companies operating in the UK can bring in there own staff without advertising the posts here. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the left has disagreed with itself about the use of immigration controls to protect labour markets. But one thing we can be certain about is that the immigration rights offered by this agreement are to be structured in such a way as to maximise the benefit to bosses, and the potential injury to workers. When workers come in through an Inter Company Transfer, their visa effectively belongs not to them, but to their bosses. They will not be allowed to change jobs, without applying for another visa which they may or may not receive. How wonderful this will be for Mr Tata! A worker who is terrified of losing his job, and who is unable to look elsewhere if he doesn’t appreciate the way he is being treated, may certainly prove less vulnerable to the disease of clocking off. And this will injure both the bonded worker, and resident workers – whose relative freedom will make them far less attractive employment prospects.
Also important is the Laval ruling. Several years back Swedish construction workers picketed building sites, after a Lithuanian firm brought in workers and paid them less than nationally agreed rates. The European Court of Justice ruled that the union had behaved illegally, since their actions conflicted with the the EU principle of free trade and open markets. It seems likely that similar limits will be placed upon the rights of workers to protest the employment of underpaid labour brought in under the EU free trade agreement at rates that break national bargaining agreements.
What is particularly galling about all of this is the extent to which the public – that is, the people who will have to live with the consequences of this agreement – have been shut out. The details of the agreement have been kept secret – although I am sure that business lobbyists in Brussels will have been given the opportunity to pore over the details and make their voices heard. Nothing will be said about this in the UK parliament – thereby saving the Labour party the embarrassment of explicitly assenting to this injurious measure. And the European Commissioners pushing it through cannot be voted out. But the MEP’s will need to go through the motions of ratifying it. For what it’s worth, I will be writing to mine and demanding that she says no.
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