The study shows that migration may also displace collective and egalitarian wage policies in favour of individual and marketized ones that put workers in competition with one another. Thus, the question is not so much whether migration leads to wage increases in sending countries, but whether unions’ wage demands in response to outward migration consolidate collective solidarity and coordination in wage policy-making or support its individualization and commodification.
Hence, migration is indeed far from being a mere factor in a virtuous cycle of labour supply and demand. Migration is rather part and parcel of global capitalism, with east-west migration more specifically being constitutive of the EU enlargement project. This is also the case in healthcare, where the integration of CEE healthcare sectors into global capitalism has been conducted through a series of neoliberal reforms that have accompanied the region’s integration into the EU. As part of a larger privatizing drive, the aim has been to increase the involvement of private actors and interests in the provision and funding of healthcare services by attempting to disengage states from healthcare provision and funding, introducing business-like models in the form of ‘new public management’ (NPM), or directly encouraging the rise of private healthcare units and funding. These measures have led to an increase in inequalities of access to services and in the segmentation of the labour market in the sector, triggering in turn an increase in healthcare worker out-migration. Migration and neoliberal healthcare reforms are thus commonly imbricated in global capitalism, and therefore play together, rather than separately, on union strategies.
The decentralization and the commodification of wage-setting arrangements in CEE not only reflect the introduction of the new European economic governance regime, but also herald a transformation of national labour markets. This brings unions face to face with the crucial dilemma of either pursuing egalitarian wage policies both across and inside sectors or engaging in the neoliberal promotion of wage competition among workers as a tool of ‘equal opportunity’.
Under the conditions of austerity, the migration argument lost much of its value as a factor for union power in CEE and led to a variety of union responses. In Romania, austerity brought renewed attempts by governments to privatize healthcare, continued outmigration and an attack on collective bargaining institutions. In this changed context, the government not only succeeded in weakening the capacity of Sanitas to act as a successful bargaining agent, notwithstanding the relatively successful protest movement of health care workers it initiated together with other professional organizations in autumn 2013. The declining ability of Sanitas to enforce binding sectoral wage norms also facilitated the rise of FSSR, which did not participate in the 2013 protests and which argues for individual, performance related pay systems in response to individual workers’ ‘exit threats’.
As the current austerity policies accentuate the trend towards neoliberal industrial relations regimes in CEE, the adoption of individual, performance-related wage policies is likely to become a more prevalent response to increased east-west labour migration than general, collective wage rises; notably among unions that represent professions and grades particularly affected by east-west labour migration. In a larger perspective, it may thus not only be true that decreased overall union power leads to higher wage inequalities, but also that some unions actively contribute to legitimate, if not directly accelerate, this trend.
Stan, S. and Erne, R. 2015. Is migration from Central and Eastern Europe an opportunity for trade unions to demand higher wages? Evidence from the Romanian health sector, European Journal of Industrial Relations, 1-17. Published online, 18 October. DOI: 10.1177/0959680115610724