The Right Not to Have Rights: Posted Worker Acquiescence and the European Union Labor Rights Framework

Nathan Lillie


The emergence of the European Union citizenship agenda has mainly taken place along the evolution of mobility rights, with the goal of creating a pan-European labor market. Mobility undermines the nationally embedded notion of industrial citizenship. Industrial citizenship protects workers’ rights and secures their participation in national political systems. The Europeanization of labor markets severs the relationship between state, territory and citizen on which industrial citizenship has been built, undermining worker collectivism and access to representation. This is legitimated in terms of building market-citizenship, i.e., enabling mobile workers as market actors. However, the way mobility is regulated in the EU has the purpose and effect of weakening collective labor institutions, which also undermines workers’ ability to act as autonomous market actors. The same factors which undermine the industrial citizenship of mobile workers also prevent them from being effective free market agents: i.e., they can neither negotiate nor enforce individual contracts effectively in the face of systematic employer fraud and wage theft. The “Arendtian dilemma” of the “right to have rights” — a dilemma that derives from the claim that rights depend on the existence of a political community, which until now is the territorially exclusive nation-state, rather than universal personhood — emerges as industrial citizenship is internationalized. By disembeddeding workers from host-country industrial relations systems, EU regulation provides the social context in which workers’ rights become alienable.

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