- Workers without Borders: Posted Work and Precarity in the EU by Ines Wagner
By Ines Wagner
Cornell University Press, 2018, 168 Pages. http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140101187010
Secure and stable forms of employment are besieged across much of the developed world. Because this development adversely affects millions of workers, while also fueling ethno-nationalist and antiimmigrant movements in many quarters, systematic research is badly needed on the structural dynamics that generate such shifts in labor market institutions. Ines Wagner's Workers without Borders provides a good example of the kind of scholarship which the precarization trend requires, focusing in particular on the dark underside of labor market integration among European Union economies.
The book focuses on a glaring policy failure at the heart of the EU project: its emphasis on the interests of capital and its general neglect of labor's vulnerability as once-distinct national economies grow ever more intertwined. At issue in Wagner's book is the growing deployment of "posted" workers, in which employers in high wage regions of Europe outsource work to subcontractors who can supply migrant workers from in low wage EU member nations. Through this practice, firms can easily to evade the wage standards, labor regulations and social insurance obligations which the host country would otherwise require. Because the use of posted workers is by its very nature a shadowy practice, data on the frequency of its use is hard to come by. What seems beyond dispute is that the phenomenon is sufficiently pervasive as to transform host economies in significant ways, undermining labor standards and protections that have long been taken for granted.
Wagner's book is not firmly rooted in sociological traditions, but instead draws largely on the disciplines of comparative political economy and employment relations research. Its contribution to these fields stems from its effort to move beyond their customary emphasis on macro-level concerns, bringing to light the micro-level realities that EU policies have wrought. The book assembles a wealth of interview and observational data with which to grasp the work situations of Eastern European workers, most of whom hail from Poland and Romania, whom subcontractors have placed within meat packing or construction jobs in Germany. Although posted workers face dire economic circumstances in their home countries, few are prepared for the realities of economic coercion and abuse they encounter in the form of wage penalties, crowded and substandard housing, social isolation, and dangerous working conditions.
One of the book's central contributions is its ability to identify the mechanisms that enable subcontractors to sidestep labor standards in a country such as Germany, which has until recently been assumed to harbor strong labor protections. One enabling factor stems from myriad loopholes in EU and German labor regulations, which leave wage standards ambiguous in particular industrial sectors. A second involves the EU's weak enforcement provisions, enabling subcontractors to evade formal requirements with impunity. A third is rooted in the complexity of EU social insurance systems, allowing subcontractors to evade social security payments, essentially using workers' contributions to enhance their own profits. A fourth is based in the ironic effects of national sovereignty, which allows the country which exports posted labor to erect obstacles that impede investigations launched by host country regulators. The result, Wagner shows, is that posted workers are made to labor within unregulated "spaces of exception," often receiving as little as half the wages received by native German workers. Because resource limitations, linguistic barriers, and legal obstacles have kept German unions from addressing the posted worker phenomenon, a split labor market has begun to gain traction in several sectors of the German economy, undermining work situations even of native Germans as well.
The book's title notwithstanding, Wagner shows that borders have actually become increasingly consequential as a result of European integration. Although national borders have disappeared for many companies, which can easily engage in transactions across the EU, they have in many ways grown more important for workers, as nationally distinct systems of labor regulation have been applied to the workers employed by the same firm. In short, European...