Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Time for some questions

For a hard-pressed London householder, for whom plumbers or electricians are rarer than hens' teeth and twice as expensive, the thought of a ready supply of willing, competent and cheap Polish plumbers is highly attractive.

For Polish plumbers, access to the UK market is a good deal. On a salary of £200 a month in their home country, it makes sense to jump on a Ryanair flight and head for London. A few weeks or months sleeping in a doss house, living off take-aways, working all hours and forgetting things like weekends and bank holidays, and they can send a relative fortune back home. A few years and they have enough of a nest-egg to set up in business back home, and live very comfortably indeed.

That is the reality of the EU's services directive and the free marketeers are applauding the initiative as a major liberalisation of the EU's internal market. After all, the argument goes, the Single Market is about freedom of trade and services account for something like 70 percent of the economies of EU member states. "Liberalisation" could add €30 billion to the member state economies and create an extra 600,000 jobs, so the mantra goes. Everybody is a winner.

Actually, though, everybody is not a winner. What happens if you are a British plumber or electrician. Not the most popular of species, granted, but what about the many honest, diligent and skilled craftsmen who have gone to college, done their training and worked their way up? They earn their living, they look after their families, buy their houses on the inflated British market and pay inflated British prices for food, services and all the other goods that make life comfortable. What about them?

And it is not just plumbers. It's lawyers, architects, surveyors, veterinary surgeons, doctors, caterers, builders and blacksmiths – any other profession and occupation where a service is provided to the public or business. All or any of them could face cut-price competition from anyone else in the EU, and especially from the Central and Eastern European countries where, at present, labour rates, taxes and living expenses are low.

Of course, economic theory would suggest that, over time, the various economies would begin to converge. Wages in high-cost countries would be driven down and those in low cost countries would rise. But how long would that take, and how much disruption and heart-ache would be caused in the interim?

And then, given that there would be for the foreseeable future a ready supply of cheap service-providers, where would be the incentive for our children to go to college to learn the skills, to take the examinations and acquire the experience for a whole range of occupations – if the end result is that they have to compete with low-cost operators who are quite happy to accept privation and hardship in order to progress in the world?

Possibly, the end result would be the closure of any number of occupational training colleges, the permanent export of a range of skills and our long-term dependency on workers from other member states.

And then how do we pay our way? With many of our own children preferring to go on the dole, turning to crime, or relying on parental support well into their thirties, how do we motivate a new generation and make it economically self-reliant? And how to we deal with the increasing resentment as people see more and more jobs taken by foreign workers?

In other words, whatever the real and potential benefits of the services directive, there are problems attendant on it, and questions to be answered. But the questions are not even being asked. It is about time they were.

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