The status of so called ‘posted workers’ – employees that are temporarily sent to carry out work in another EU member state – has been a controversial issue in recent years. As Zane Rasnača explains, this debate has often been framed as concern over companies hiring cheap Eastern European workers for short-term jobs in Western Europe. However, drawing on a new study, she illustrates that as far as reimbursement for travel, board and lodging expenses are concerned, posted workers remain largely unprotected in the West, East and South of Europe. This underlines the need for substantive EU level rules on the matter.
During the last decade one of the most controversial political debates in the EU has focused on the posting of workers – an arrangement under which workers are temporarily sent by their employer to carry out a service (work) in another EU member state. This debate has been characterised by the so-called ‘East/West’ divide. The political fight during the recent revision of the Posted Workers Directive focused on stopping “companies from hiring cheap Eastern European workers for short-term jobs in Western Europe”. In this context an underlying assumption seems to have been that workers are better protected in Western European countries, and therefore, the posted workers as much as possible should be subject to the regulations of the host country.
While it might indeed be so that in some aspects (usually salary), the Western European countries are more generous, a recent study by the European Trade Union Institute shows that in some aspects, like reimbursement for travel, board and lodging expenses incurred during posting, posted workers remain largely unprotected across the board – in the West, East and also South of Europe. Shifting the responsibility for regulating such matters from home to the host country, or vice-versa, therefore does not suffice. What we need instead are substantive EU level rules on the matter.
Figure: Legal situation across Europe
Note: For more information see the accompanying paper by the European Trade Union Institute
Currently, as many as 15 EU member states, ranging from Western (e.g. Austria and the Netherlands) and Northern countries (Sweden, Finland and Denmark) to those in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe (Portugal, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Poland) do not regulate reimbursement of travel, board and lodging costs for posted workers at all. There is no East/West or South/West divide in this regard. While in some of these states protective rules can be found in collective agreements, and in this regard the Northern countries seem to dominate, it is not particularly clear whether such agreements really cover all posted workers. In fact, in many member states, both the personal and territorial scope of collective agreements is limited, and they might not reach workers in all sectors or workers working outside of the state territory.
This means that many posted workers currently fall through the cracks and are not compensated for the extra expenses they incur during their posting. This is inconsistent and unfair. If workers do have a right to reimbursement, then almost always in the EU28 this right has to be sought in their country of origin (the country from which they are posted abroad). And, actually, the majority of countries that do protect their posted workers come from Central and Eastern Europe (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia). Spain and Germany also have statutory rules allowing workers posted abroad to claim reimbursement. Finally, two Southern (Italy and Greece) and one Western European country (France*) oblige employers to reimburse travel, board and lodging costs not only to workers posted from their territory but also to those workers posted inwards.
This exercise of mapping national reimbursement rules reveals that, at least concerning compensation of posted workers’ travel, board and lodging costs, the myth of the so-called ‘peripheries’ of Europe not protecting their workers is misleading. Instead, most ‘periphery’ countries have protective rules in place. At the same time, some member states from which many workers are posted do not give (statutory) right to reimbursement at all. The most significant example here is Poland, but Portugal, Austria and the Netherlands should also be mentioned.
The lack of common protective standards at the EU level not only leads to situations where large groups of posted workers remain unprotected, but also incentivises member states to compete on the basis of their labour law standards in order to attract companies specialising in providing services across borders. This might lead to de-regulation. Bulgaria presents such a case. It used to have very protective rules on reimbursement in place, but exceptions to these rules were made for posted workers in 2017. As long as only some EU member states have protective rules in place, posted workers will continue to fall through the cracks both in the East and in the West.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Zane Rasnača – ETUI
Zane Rasnača is a Researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI). She holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence.