EU states push to agree reform of labour rules sought by Macron
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EU states push to agree reform of labour rules sought by Macron
* Four rounds of talks not yet yielded compromise

* Posting of workers divide EU's rich from poor (Updates with more talks)

By Gabriela Baczynska, Gilbert and Reilhac

LUXEMBOURG/BRUSSELS, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Four rounds of talks between 28 European Union ministers on Monday narrowed differences over reforming the bloc's labour rules that poorer countries value but French President Emmanuel Macron criticises for undercutting his workers.

The issue pits wealthier countries against poorer peers keen to preserve current rules that allow their citizens to work elsewhere in the bloc for salaries higher than they would get at home but still lower than the local labour force.

Macron has put reforming the so-called posting of workers directive high on the EU's agenda and is backed by Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, among others.

After a day of talks among labour ministers in Luxembourg, there was growing backing for a compromise that would cap posting workers abroad at 18 months, possibly with some exemptions, and introduce a four-year transition time between agreeing on the reform and its taking effect.

"You can be very close and never arrive," the Estonian chairman of the meeting Jevgeni Ossinovski warned his colleagues as he announced another break to seek an agreement before resuming later in the evening.

With most countries taking the floor on the matter, differences remain around keeping international road transport covered under any new posting rules, as sought by Berlin and Paris among others.

Spain, Ireland, Portugal and several states on the EU's eastern flank want that exempted and subject to a separate law. In the latter group, Poland is the biggest exporter of cheap labour force in the EU.

"It's about fairness on the labour market," said the EU's top jobs official, Marianne Thyssen. "I am all in favour of freedom of movement but it must be organised in a fair way ... The internal market is based on rules, it's not a jungle."

While one camp says easy access for cheap workers to their countries is weighing on salaries and undermining the labour market, the other says tightening rules amounts to protectionism and weakens competition.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and other easterners say they should be allowed to compete with lower wages to catch up with the wealthier west after decades of communist malaise.

EU DIVIDED

The 18-month proposal seemed close to bridging differences over the maximum period for sending workers abroad under posting rules before they fall subject to the host country's labour laws.

Other themes still open include exact remuneration rules for the posting of workers, which is profitable for companies because of the existing wage gap in the EU.

While the estimated 2 million posted workers only make up a tiny fraction of the bloc's workforce, the issue has become politically sensitive, driving a wedge between the richer states at the centre and their poorer peers on the peripheries.

For Macron, the reform is seen as crucial to convince his voters of a need for difficult economic reforms at home by showing he stands up for their interests in the EU.

Should the Paris push not bring a breakthrough now, those seeking tighter rules say a deal may become even more distant from January, when Bulgaria - a key beneficiary of the current system - takes the EU's rotating chairmanship over from Estonia.

There will not be a formal vote on Monday but, should there not be too many objections to another proposal expected from Estonia, the ministers may give the green light to opening negotiations on the reform with the European Parliament.

European lawmakers last week agreed their own stance on the matter, including by proposing a 24-month limit on working abroad under posting rules, and ensuring that such mobile workers are entitled to the same bonuses as the locals. (Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Alison Williams)

First Published: 2017-10-23 13:45:09
Updated 2017-10-23 20:37:51



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