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Ireland: Lisbon will destroy, not save, workers rights

It is reported in the Irish Times that the Charter Group of trade union activists is arguing for workers to support the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland’s October referendum, but their framework and evidence is perplexing. It has generally put forward the view that Europe has been of enormous benefit to workers and the treaty would further improve workers rights. If you look at the context of this debate, Ireland needs to consider carefully the negative impact Lisbon will have on workers rights.

First, the treaty is a new European Constitution, which by law, will have superiority over the Irish Constitution. If it is accepted, the Irish people will give up their constitutional rights under the Irish Constitution and be subject to very different constitutional arrangements under the European Constitution. This creates a new context – a new European Union, under which workers rights will be placed.

Second, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, attached to the treaty, rolls back workers’ rights by failing to include a clause requiring the recognition of trade unions.

Third, ordinary Irish people would be denied their basic rights in the workplace. For example, the European Court of Justice, basing its judgements on the Charter, had recently ruled against Swedish workers’ rights. In the ‘Vaxholm case’, the Latvian company Laval wanted to use Latvian workers in Sweden but would not agree to Swedish pay and conditions. Swedish unions opposed this treatment. The European Court ruled that the union could only act to ensure the Swedish minimum wage was paid and go no further. Other Swedish agreements could not be imposed. It puts pressure on Irish workers to accept minimum wage levels or risk losing their jobs.

At a time when about 450,000 Irish people are unemployed, crushed by cuts, taxes, mortgage payments, on top of public bank-bail-outs, the politicians who brought this upon Ireland are also asking for trust over the issues of workers rights in the treaty.

It is odd, then, that some groups are using those European Court of Justice decisions as evidence for a Yes vote. It is also worth noting that a No vote to Lisbon could be used to obtain a social Protocol which would outlaw these unjust verdicts of the EU Court.

Fourth, Lisbon puts the competition rules of the EU market above the right of Irish trade unions to enforce pay standards higher than the minimum for migrant workers – so whilst it reduces the power of Irish labour, it reinforces the power of migrant workers. The Lisbon treaty allows big business to import cheap labour and undercut Irish workers, in much the same way as it has done in labour disputes in the UK and the Nordic countries.

This comes at a time when Finance Minister Brian Lenihan has said, massive and uncontrolled immigration of EU labour into Ireland helped to cause the economic crash. Overseas workers now make up almost 20% of Ireland’s unemployed.

Fifth, I am glad to note that, in recognition of these aspects of the treaty, the Technical, Electrical and Engineering Union (TEEU) will now be calling for a No vote, stating that its opposition to the policy of the European Court of Justice in interpreting the law in this area was done in “a manner detrimental to the long-term interests of our members”.

In short, Lisbon would be bad for workers rights but it is for the Irish people to decide whether to reject this Treaty again.


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Bill Cash has been the Conservative Member of Parliament for Stone since 1997 and an MP since 1984.

He is currently the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee and the founder member of the European Foundation...

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