Executive Briefings

Europe’s Thirst for Cheap Labor Fuels a Boom in Disposable Workers

As dusk settled over the rambling countryside in Pardubice, Czech Republic, a group of haggard workers emerged from a dank three-story concrete dormitory and jammed into buses. The evening shift was about to begin at two nearby factories owned by Foxconn and Panasonic.

Most of the workers had been recruited from Romania, Bulgaria and other Central European countries by a large employment agency. When their contracts are up, they will be sent home, with another group of migrant workers brought in as required — replaceable cogs in a tireless machine.

Across Europe, nearly 55,000 agencies recruit hundreds of thousands of temporary workers each year for cheap manual labor and service jobs. The agencies allow employers to tap into a more flexible work force — and avoid some of the region’s more onerous labor costs.

Those agencies recruiting manual labor scour the Continent for people willing to pick vegetables in Britain, pour concrete in France or work assembly lines in Eastern Europe. While they receive monthly pay, they often work long days, so their wages can average out to as little as 3.50 euros, or about $4.10, an hour — less than the minimum wage in some of the countries. Some agencies control entire labor supply chains, transporting recruits across borders, lodging them, busing them to and from job sites, and then moving them elsewhere when they’re no longer needed.

The practices are legal under rules that allow European citizens to work anywhere in the 28-nation bloc. But as employers outsource more workers and deepen their reliance on shorter-term contracts to cut costs, European regulators are increasing their scrutiny. About a third of Europeans are now in some form of atypical employment, ranging from Uber drivers to pilots, and there are concerns that basic labor protections, including social security benefits and sick leave, are being eroded. 

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Most of the workers had been recruited from Romania, Bulgaria and other Central European countries by a large employment agency. When their contracts are up, they will be sent home, with another group of migrant workers brought in as required — replaceable cogs in a tireless machine.

Across Europe, nearly 55,000 agencies recruit hundreds of thousands of temporary workers each year for cheap manual labor and service jobs. The agencies allow employers to tap into a more flexible work force — and avoid some of the region’s more onerous labor costs.

Those agencies recruiting manual labor scour the Continent for people willing to pick vegetables in Britain, pour concrete in France or work assembly lines in Eastern Europe. While they receive monthly pay, they often work long days, so their wages can average out to as little as 3.50 euros, or about $4.10, an hour — less than the minimum wage in some of the countries. Some agencies control entire labor supply chains, transporting recruits across borders, lodging them, busing them to and from job sites, and then moving them elsewhere when they’re no longer needed.

The practices are legal under rules that allow European citizens to work anywhere in the 28-nation bloc. But as employers outsource more workers and deepen their reliance on shorter-term contracts to cut costs, European regulators are increasing their scrutiny. About a third of Europeans are now in some form of atypical employment, ranging from Uber drivers to pilots, and there are concerns that basic labor protections, including social security benefits and sick leave, are being eroded. 

Read Full Article