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Low cost foreign workers trouble France

Friday, December 06 07:28:04

At the northern tip of France, on the Channel coast, the country's second-biggest industrial building site buzzes with engines, cranes, and more than 1,000 workers.

But most are foreign, not French, employed at lower cost on temporary contracts under a European Union law that has stirred political outrage, embarrassed the Socialist government and given ammunition to the far-right National Front.

The issue, sensitive ahead of next year's European Parliament elections, will top the agenda next Monday when the EU's 28 labour ministers meet in Brussels, and may well be escalated to a summit of the bloc's leaders on Dec. 19-20.

The project of a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, close to where a British flotilla rescued an expeditionary force when Germany invaded France in 1940, had spurred high hopes for jobs in a rust belt town hard hit by industrial decline and the recent closure of a Total refinery.

But like many construction sites across the country, the project, owned by state-controlled utility EDF, mainly employs foreigners hired via subcontractors on terms that avoid France's high labour costs. The practice is legal under a 1996 European directive but French trade unions say it is widely abused, and local workers are feeling bitter.

"The region is desperate for jobs, but we're facing utterly unfair competition and we're being squeezed out," said David Sans, a local CGT unionist. His electrical company just lost a tender on the LNG site. Rival Italian bidders, he said, offered Portuguese labour at nearly half the cost of French workers.

The phenomenon is on the rise as companies hungry for business fight to win competitive tenders but it is causing mounting resentment in France, where unemployment is near all-time highs.

Each year, more than a million workers are posted by their employers across EU borders to provide services, mainly in construction, agriculture, hospitality and transport, according to the European Commission.

The government says the number of declared posted workers in France - mainly from Poland, Portugal and Romania - rose 23 percent this year to more than 200,000, and officials estimate that many more go unregistered. ( C ) Reuters