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28 Apr, 2013

Europe bids to help workers exercise rights to free movement


Brussels, 26 April 2013 – The European Commission has today proposed measures to ensure the better application of EU law on people’s right to work in another Member State and so make it easier for people to exercise their rights in practice. Currently there is a persistent problem with public and private employers’ lack of awareness of EU rules, regardless of whether the national legislation is compliant or not.

This lack of awareness or understanding of the rules is a major source of discrimination based on nationality. People also consider that they do not know where to turn to in the host Member State when faced with problems concerning their rights to free movement. The proposal aims to overcome these obstacles and to help to prevent discrimination against workers on the basis of nationality by proposing practical solutions.

László Andor, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said: “The free movement of workers is a key principle of the EU’s Single Market. With much higher levels of unemployment in some Member States than others at the moment, it is all the more important to make it easier for those that want to work in another EU country to be able to do so. Labour mobility is a win-win – it benefits both Member States’ economies and the individual workers concerned. This proposal will help workers to overcome obstacles to working in another EU country.”

The proposal, if approved by the European Parliament and Council, would help to ensure real and effective application of existing legislation. Member States would be required to:

  1. create national contact points providing information, assistance and advice so that EU migrant workers, and employers, are better informed about their rights
  2. provide appropriate means of redress at national level
  3. allow labour unions, NGOs and other organisations to launch administrative or judicial procedures on behalf of individual workers in cases of discrimination
  4. give better information for EU migrant workers and employers in general.


Currently 3% of the EU labour force, or 9.5 million people, live and work in another Member State. An additional 1.2 million people live in one EU country but work in another. But people wanting to work in another country often lack protection and information in the host Member State and can have difficulties accessing a job or social advantages or with their working conditions. A September 2011 Eurobarometer poll indicated that 15% of EU citizens would not consider working in another Member State because they feel there are too many obstacles. Obstacles include:

  1. different recruitment conditions
  2. nationality conditions to access certain posts
  3. different working conditions in practice (such as pay, career prospects and grade)
  4. problems with access to social benefits which are subject to conditions are more easily met by nationals than by EU citizens (e.g. a residence condition)
  5. professional qualifications and experience acquired in other Member States not taken into account or taken into account in a different way.

As well as having professional and personal consequences for the individuals concerned, these obstacles also adversely affect their integration into the labour market and society of the host country.

The right of EU citizens to work in another Member State, laid down in Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), includes the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of nationality as regards access to employment, pay and other working conditions. Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 details the rights derived from free movement of workers and defines specific areas where discrimination on grounds of nationality is prohibited, in particular as regards:

  1. access to employment
  2. working conditions
  3. social and tax advantages
  4. access to training
  5. membership of trade unions
  6. housing
  7. access to education for children.

Both Article 45 TFEU and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 are directly applicable in the Member States but the new proposal aims to improve and reinforce the way in which they are applied in practice. The proposal would do this by establishing a general common framework of appropriate provisions and measures for facilitating better and more uniform application of rights conferred by EU law on workers and members of their families exercising their right to free movement. Independently of this proposal, the Commission, as guardian of the Treaty, will also continue to pursue infringement procedures where necessary against Member States in cases where national law is not in line with the Treaty and the Regulation.

Labour mobility in the EU benefits not only the workers involved but also the Member States’ economies. It benefits host countries because it allows companies to fill vacancies that would otherwise not be filled – there is no evidence that migrant workers take jobs away from host country workers – and so produce goods and provide services that they would otherwise be unable to do. And it benefits migrants’ countries of origin because it allows workers that would otherwise be less able to work to find jobs and so ensure financial support to their family back home and acquire skills and experience they would otherwise lack. When migrant workers subsequently return to their country of origin they then benefit from that experience.

For example, a 2011 study on migration from eight new Member States (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia) indicated that Ireland’s GDP was boosted by 3%, and the UK’s GDP by 1.2%, in the period 2004-09 as a result of migrant workers from these eight Member States.

For more information: MEMO/13/384


(see also IP/13/372)

What are the main obstacles to free movement of workers?

The right to free movement of workers within the EU was enshrined in the Treaty more than 50 years ago and is one of the pillars of the Single Market. Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)sets out the right of EU citizens to move to another Member State for work purposes. This right entails in particular the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality as regards access to employment, remuneration and other conditions of work. Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 further details the rights derived from free movement of workers and defines specific areas where discrimination on grounds of nationality is prohibited.

Nevertheless, European citizens can still face problems and obstacles when moving within the EU borders.

The numerous complaints addressed to the Commission reveal that many workers are discriminated against on the basis of their nationality when applying for jobs, even though there is also proof that EU migrant workers are – more often than nationals – over-qualified for the posts they hold (see Employment and Social Developments in Europe review 2011, page 272). In addition, there are a range of discriminatory practices and obstacles that affect EU migrant workers once they have obtained a post.

Experience shows that although many obstacles are of a cultural or socio-economic nature, there is evidence documenting the existence of obstacles of an administrative or legal nature. These hamper citizens from enjoying the rights which are conferred on them directly by EU law.

Examples of discriminatory practices and obstacles include:

  • different recruitment conditions for EU nationals
  • nationality conditions to access certain posts
  • nationality quotas for EU citizens (e.g. in the field of professional sport)
  • different working conditions in practice (remuneration, career prospects, grade, etc.)
  • access to social advantages (such as study grants) subject to conditions which are more easily met by nationals than by EU citizens (e.g. a residence condition)
  • professional experience acquired in other Member States (in particular in the public sector) not properly taken into account
  • professional qualifications acquired in other Member States not taken into account or taken into account in a different way.

These practices and obstacles are compounded by the fact that citizens working in a foreign country are often unaware of where to find information about their rights. Indeed, in an October 2010 public opinion survey conducted by the Commission, 67% of respondents indicated that they were not well informed or not informed at all regarding their rights as EU citizens. The proposed Directive would target this issue by providing the means to bridge the gap between EU rights and practice, and therefore allow workers to exercise fully their rights.

Why is the European Commission proposing this Directive?

EU rules on free movement of workers are long-established and clear but the way in which they are applied in practice can give rise to barriers and discriminatory practices for EU migrant workers when working or looking for work in another Member State . Even though information tools and procedures to enforce workers’ rights already exist at national level, there is a lack of awareness and consistency in the application of workers’ rights to free movement.

The proposal for a Directive would give full effect to the application of Article 45 TFEU and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 while giving Member States flexibility to design implementing measures best suited to their national context. In some Member States, for example, equality bodies or other similar structures already exist and only certain adjustments to the powers and tasks of such bodies will be necessary. The proposed Directive would require Member States to take concrete actions to guarantee a more effective and homogeneous application of EU law on free movement of workers in practice.

Infringement proceedings launched by the Commission concerning breach of workers’ right to free movement have invariably been against countries where information and support systems are not effective. The Directive would therefore aim to reduce the number of infringement cases against Member States.

Is free movement of workers sustainable in the context of the economic crisis, in particular in those Member States with high rates of unemployment?

Ensuring adequate matching between labour supply and demand is even more crucial in the current economic crisis, where there are massive gaps between the EU Member States in terms of unemployment rates and job vacancy rates. According to the latest European Vacancy Monitor, job vacancies in the second quarter of 2012 amounted to roughly 1.85 million (in 16 EU countries).

Even in the current context, any restriction on free movement of workers can only be a temporary derogation. This is why remaining transitional restrictions on the free movement of Bulgarian and Romanian workers will be, in line with the Accession treaties, end on 31 December 2013 without exception.

Is there not a risk of creating a “brain drain” in certain countries?
Whilst it is true that the home country loses out in the short-term when a worker moves abroad, the situation is more beneficial than if the worker stayed in the home country unemployed. Whilst the migrant worker remains employed abroad, he can contribute to the economy of his home state via remittances. When there is an economic upturn, workers overwhelmingly go back to their home country to make use of the skills they have acquired in the meantime. This was demonstrated by the number of Polish workers who moved to the UK to work after 2004 but have now returned to Poland. Nonetheless, there is always a role for measures to boost economic development in countries with fewer resources, for example with a better use of the structural funds.

Does free movement of workers lead to so-called “social benefit tourism”?

No. The vast majority of people moving to another Member State do so to work. This is borne out by public opinion surveys and statistical evidence such as EU barometers on mobility and the EU labour force survey that show that the main incentives for citizens moving to another Member State are related to employment and work prospects.

Looking at the population of migrants by labour status, EU- labour force survey data (2012Q3) indicate that 68.1% of the EU working-age (15-64) citizens living in another Member State are in employment and only 9.3% are jobseekers (Eurostat, EU- labour force survey). Finally, among the mobile EU citizens who are unemployed, the vast majority lost their job in their current destination country, not before migrating.

No Member State has given the Commission any statistical evidence that “social benefits tourism” exists to any significant extent.

What specific examples does the Commission have of obstacles and discrimination met by people working or seeking work in another EU country?

In The Netherlands, Lukasz, a Polish worker in the construction sector, doing the same job as his Dutch colleagues, receives a lower salary. This nationality-based discrimination, operated by private employers in relation to working conditions including salary, is prohibited by Article 45 TFEU and Article 7 (1) of Regulation 492/2011. Lukasz can claim before the national courts for equal pay but it could be very difficult and costly for him to initiate administrative and/or judicial procedures. The proposal for a Directive, in its Article 5 (equality bodies), would help people like Lukasz by requiring Member States to establish bodies for assisting and advising EU migrant workers in such a situation. Moreover, Article 4 of the proposal, would allow associations with a legitimate interest or trade unions to engage, either on behalf of or in support of Lukasz in any judicial and/or administrative procedure provided for the enforcement of equal treatment rights.

Job advertisements by a private company for English teachers in Spain required applicants to be native speakers. As a consequence, Aliute, a Lithuanian candidate with sufficient knowledge of English to carry out the job was not accepted. According to the EU law on free movement of workers, language requirements must be reasonable and necessary for the job in question and cannot constitute grounds for excluding workers from other Member States. Once the Directive were adopted and implemented, Aliute, could ask for assistance and advice from the equality bodies foreseen in Article 5 of the proposal.

Helmut, an Austrian teacher with 15 years of work experience in Austria was hired by a public school in Italy. However, his work experience was not taken into account for determining his salary. He was put on the lowest pay scale. According to EU law on free movement of workers migrant workers’ previous periods of comparable employment acquired in other Member States must be taken into account by public sector employers for the purpose of access to posts and for determining working conditions in the same way as working periods acquired in the host Member State’s system. The proposed Directive would allow Helmut to benefit from the new enhanced information requirements imposed on Member States by and, if he went to court to assert his right to pay commensurate with his experience, he could be assisted by the new equality bodies required by the proposed Directive.

Tino is an Italian national who plays senior hockey on skates in France. He resides in France and holds a working contract with a French hockey on skates club. In June 2012, the French Roller Sports Federation adopted a new rule which stipulates that only three foreign players can take part in each official match. Tino is concerned that he will lose his job because of this new rule. Although the French Roller Sports Federation is strictly not a government body, the settled case-law of the Court of Justice makes clear that Article 45 TFEU can be relied upon in these circumstances to outlaw discrimination on grounds of nationality. Tino would be able to benefit from Article 5 of the proposed Directive as it would require Member States to set up equality bodies to provide support to migrant workers to enforce their rights.

Joanne, a UK national working in Finland, complained that she was unable to get her fixed-term contract converted into an open-ended contract on the grounds that she did not speak Finnish. Her employer was nonetheless happy to offer her another fixed-term contract. This form of indirect discrimination in relation to working conditions is contrary to Article 7(1) of Regulation 492/2011. Article 4 of the proposed Directive would ensures, for example, that Joanne’s trade union could take action to assist her to enforce her rights under the Regulation.

José, a Spanish national looking for work, was told by the employment services in Ireland, that he could not apply for certain jobs as the employer would accept only Irish nationals. Article 5 of Regulation 492/2011 requires a Member State’s employment services to give the same assistance to nationals of other states as to their own nationals. Article 5 of the proposed Directive would require Member States to set up a designated equality body to which people like José could complain about the practice he experienced in the Irish employment office.

Jean-Claude is a frontier worker who works in Luxembourg, but lives with his family in France. His son wants to apply for a study grant from Luxembourg but is prevented from doing so due to the requirement that he must be resident there. Article 7(2) of Regulation 492/2011 confers equal treatment as regards social advantages on the children of migrant workers. Jean-Claude and his son would be able to benefit from Article 5 of the proposed Directive as it would require Member States to set up an equality body to assist migrant workers and their family members to pursue their rights.

Kasia, a Polish national, worked in the UK but then was injured in a road traffic accident. The accident prevented her from working and, due to complications in her condition; she was unable to return to work for at least 6 months. Kasia made a claim for an incapacity benefit to enable her to have some income whilst she was unable to work. Her claim was refused on the basis that she was an inactive migrant and not entitled to such a benefit. But under EU law a worker who is temporarily incapacitated as a result of illness or accident retains the status of worker. Kasia was therefore entitled, even whilst not working, to the same social advantages as UK nationals. Kasia would benefit from the new enhanced information duties imposed on Member States by Article 7 of the proposed Directive. Moreover, Article 4 of the proposed Directive would ensure, for example, that NGOs with a legitimate interest could assist her to request a review of the welfare authorities’ decision.

Access to all jobs in the Ministry of the Interior in Bulgaria are restricted to Bulgarian nationals. Such restrictions are, according to the Court of Justice’s interpretation of Article 45 TFEU, permissible only in very restricted circumstances. Dimitrios is a qualified lawyer but was prevented from applying to work in the Bulgarian Ministry on the basis that he is a Greek national. Article 5 of the proposed Directive would require Bulgaria to set up a designated equality body in Bulgaria to advise Dimitrios on the legality of the exclusion and, if appropriate, to assist him to challenge his exclusion from applying for the job.

Biser is a Bulgarian national working in the construction industry in Germany. His employer pays him a salary but does not make any social insurance payments for him. When Biser suffered an accident at work, he found out he was not entitled to healthcare for his condition. Articles 4 and 5 of the proposal would require Germany to establish associations and equality bodies to advise and assist EU migrant workers on their rights and on how to enforce them.

What do we know about mobility within the EU?

Mobility within the EU remains relatively low: according to the EU-Labour force survey, in the third quarter of 2012, only 3.1% of the working-age European citizens (15-64) lived in another EU Member State than their own.

A 2009 Eurobarometer on geographical and labour mobility showed that around 10 % of EU citizens have already worked and lived in another country at some time, but 38 % for less than one year (and 13% for a period between one and two years).

Data available on intra-EU mobility and comparison to other regions in the world (US, Australia, Canada) lead to the conclusion that the right to free movement is underused.

The perception from workers is that mobility is potentially costly for them and subject to many obstacles. This led to 60% of them expressing the opinion that free movement of workers is good for the European integration but only 48 % of them stated that it was a good thing for individuals (2009 Eurobarometer on labour and geographical mobility).