Labour mobility should not be a quick fix for worker shortages

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If implemented properly, worker mobility within the EU can bring economic prosperity and enrich our society

Labour mobility can spur on the EU's economic recovery and growth by compensating for labour shortages on Europe's job markets. However, there are many obstacles to the free movement of workers, ranging from insufficient social or labour rights to the poor transferability of skills across Member States, an EESC hearing was told.

The hearing on Enhancing labour mobility to support economic recovery brought together representatives of EU institutions, the European Labour Authority (ELA), academics and civil society organisations. Its aim was to gather input for the ongoing EESC own-initiative opinion on labour mobility, which will be put to vote at the EESC plenary session in October.

The EU stands to gain if people move from one Member State to another. But labour mobility is currently the victim of a piecemeal approach. This is why we need policies on labour mobility that are more unified; we need incentives and a better enforcement of the existing regulations, said the rapporteur for the opinion, Philip von Brockdorff.

According to the hearing participants, labour mobility within the EU is currently marred by a number of problems, such as a lack of social security coordination between Member States, which leaves many workers with insufficient social security protection once they move, especially in the case of workers with atypical work contracts.

Tax incentives should also be strengthened as well as the mechanism for mutual recognition of workers' qualifications.

Another issue is brain drain, which, when it persists, can have a severe impact on economic growth as it effectively leaves entire regions without its young, educated population.

Furthermore, recent population projections indicate that ageing societies and declining birth rates will result in a shrinking workforce and additional labour and skills shortages. This makes it very likely that mobility within the EU itself will not be sufficient to bridge those gaps.

It is therefore becoming necessary to attract third-country workers to EU labour markets, and this is already creating discrimination as they often do not enjoy the same workers' rights as EU citizens.

In the hearing's first panel, dedicated to the state of play at EU level, MEP Radan Kanev said that the European Parliament shared the EESC's view that no extensive new regulations were needed, as the rules already in place were not being properly implemented and there was a significant lack of coordination between the Member States.

He gave the example of the social security coordination regulation, which was still pending in trilogues and would now need to be revised as it was outdated. Also, the Commission's proposal for a social security number was now being watered down to a social security wallet. Having a clear EU-level identifier is one of the main keys to digitalisation and labour mobility, Mr Kanev stressed.

The ELA's latest annual report on labour shortages and surpluses in Europe, presented at the hearing by its Executive Director, Cosmin Boiangiu, had shown that there was a shortage of workers in the healthcare and software professions. It also found structured shortages brought about by the green and digital transitions.

In Mr Boiangiu's view, workers must be given full information about job prospects in another country to be able to take informed choices about their lives.

Whatever they choose, their labour rights must be fully enforced, he said, adding that the ELA was noticing an increased trend of workers returning to their home country.

UNDERSTANDING LABOUR MOBILITY

According to the figures presented at the hearing, 13 million Europeans are active movers, accounting for 4.2% of Europe's total workforce. Young people between the ages of 18 and 35 migrate by far the most, and people with a higher level of education migrate more in all age groups. Also, the mobility of highly qualified workers is to a large degree temporary and motivated by different reasons and not only financially.

Mobility within the EU is unique in the world and there are no good reference points to judge its success, said Dr Wido Geis-Thöne, Senior Economist for Family Policy and Migration Issues at IW Köln (the German Economic Institute). EU migration can resemble internal migration within one country, but it is also fundamentally different, especially due to language differences.

Measures to promote mobility should be oriented towards the motives and contexts of migration and should aim at removing obstacles, with a focus on language barriers, Dr Geis-Thöne said.

Dr Mehtap Akgüç, Senior Researcher at ETUI, indicated that one out of three movers are highly skilled. Two out of three return to their home country. Workers migrate most from Romania, Poland, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria, while the main destinations are Germany, Spain, Italy, France and the UK.

Studies show the benefits of labour mobility for economic prosperity and innovation. At micro level, diversity increases knowledge and innovation, Dr Akgüç said.

Smoother EU labour mobility requires bureaucratic, cultural and language barriers to be overcome and coordination between the skills needed in job markets and education and training. It is also essential to put in place child and elderly care arrangements and increase awareness about social and labour rights. Protection of vulnerable migrant groups is paramount.

Katharina Wiese of the European Environmental Bureau highlighted the need to jump off the endless treadmill of an economic system that was dependent on GDP growth to create jobs, adversely affecting working conditions and job quality as well as the environment and our wellbeing. The focus should instead be put on labour productivity.

LABOUR IS NOT A COMMODITY

For Claes-Mikael Ståhl, ETUC Deputy General Secretary, labour mobility should be a free choice, and not the result of a lack of opportunities or a quick fix for addressing labour shortages. Poor quality jobs should never be outsourced to migrant workers. They all need to have access to decent jobs and pay.

Dr Raluca Radescu, European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI), spoke about a huge mismatch between labour market demands and workers' skills. Some 70% of EU companies are currently struggling to find the right candidates for their posts.

She warned that third country nationals are often hired and paid less despite having the equal level of qualification. We should not leave room for abuses and exploitation, she stressed.

Maja Kluger Dionigi from the Confederation of Danish Employers gave the example of the greater Copenhagen region, where out of 4.3 million inhabitants, 17 000 are daily commuters, with nine out of 10 commuting from Sweden to Denmark. In her view, the area can serve as a role model for border regions on how regional cross-border assistance can be done.

One of the prerequisites is to have fast low-cost transport infrastructure but also a regional government structure in place to deal with any obstacles to free movement, such as those relating to social coordination and taxation. Government officials in southern Sweden and Denmark have set up a one-stop-shop to provide a huge range of information to cross-border workers.

But overall, mobility in the EU is still quite low and the potential of matching labour shortages with surpluses in other countries is limited.

Labour shortages are a complex and cross-cutting problem linked to EU regions and policies. It is key to identify the drivers of the different types of shortages. We need a holistic and complementary approach to labour mobility, Ms Kluger Dionigi concluded.