Brexit and immigration: prioritising the rights of all workers

Another Europe is Possible has today released a major new report into post-Brexit migration policy. It recommends a system of “Free Movement +”

20th September 2017

Another Europe is Possible has today released a major new report into post-Brexit migration policy, drafted by Luke Cooper and Zoe Gardner and introduced by TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes. Brexit and immigration: prioritising the rights of all workers can be read in full here.

The 28-page report looks at a variety of different case-studies and proposals for post-Brexit migration systems and concludes that “the simple reality is that migrants with fewer rights will be more vulnerable to super-exploitation. Whenever and wherever this happens all workers will suffer.”

It recommends a system of “Free Movement +”:

  • The retention of a rights-based migration system (free movement) ‘plus’ a series of strengthened workers’ rights and social protections
  • Using UK legislation to institute sector-by-sector bargaining systems to establish minimum pay and conditions
  • A review of the Posted Workers Directive, and a ban on ‘foreign only’ recruitment practices
  • Inspections and strictly enforced penalties for unscrupulous employers
  • A clear, secure guarantee of rights for migrants, referencing the EU Fundamental Charter of Rights and using the jurisdiction of the ECJ

For the full press release, click here.

Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, said:
“This year’s conference provides an opportunity for the Labour movement to take a clear, principled position on immigration that makes sense and benefits everyone – after decades of retreating.  As this report sets out, we can and must win the fight for free movement – by marrying it with a radical social and economic policy that puts power and agency back into the hands of ordinary people.”

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 Britain currently has two parallel systems for economic migrants. One system covers migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA: all other EU states, plus Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) and Switzerland. Citizens of these states have the right to work and study in the UK. This right is reciprocated for UK nationals in the EEA and is widely referred to as ‘free movement’. The other system covers non-EEA nationals from the rest of the world and is a points-based system with various different ‘tiered’ categories of visa. This system generally prioritises those with high incomes or skilled workers.

Key sectors of the British economy are dependent on a regular supply of unskilled migrant labour. Cutting off this supply would cause serious supply-side issues in the labour market. For instance, there would not be sufficient workers to undertake seasonal jobs such as fruit picking leading to a decline in the economic output of the sector. Because these workers also consume goods when they are in the UK, there would be a further knock on effect to other parts of the economy. Migrants also make a significant net contribution to the public finances. Reducing the number of migrants by cutting off opportunities to come and work in the UK would therefore have very serious negative impacts on the UK economy. By the same token the number of migrants coming to the UK will also reflect levels of economic demand. When the economy is growing demand will be high and when it is contracting there will be reduced demand and a lower number of immigrants coming to the UK.

Free movement is a long-standing cornerstone of the UK economy on which employers depend. Regular inflows of both skilled and unskilled labour are critical to addressing shortages in the UK labour market and EU citizens have played a key role over recent decades in fulfilling these needs, contributing as equals to the UK workforce and increasing the cultural diversity of British society. While EU citizens often take up skilled positions they have been particularly important in the unskilled labour market. This is because under the current visa system for non-EEA nationals used by the UK government it is almost impossible for employers to recruit outside the EEA for these roles. Because the UK economy needs low/unskilled migration in order to fill labour gaps employers are dependent on EEA nationals to meet these shortages. As a consequence as many as three in four migrants from the EEA could not meet the current requirements of the UK points system for non-EEA nationals.

The future of low or unskilled immigration is a critical part of the UK-EU negotiation with huge ramifications for major sectors of the UK economy.

For workers, free movement provides opportunities to live and work in other EEA countries without facing major economic or administrative obstacles.

EEA citizens living in the UK (and, conversely, UK citizens living in the rest of the EEA) have a series of social and political rights, e.g. to not be discriminated against in the labour market and a conditional right of residency.

Under the current system these social and civil rights are relatively strong. They not only protect migrant workers but also put up a barrier (which is far from insurmountable but real) to the super-exploitation of these workers. This is especially important in the British labour market which has some of the most restrictive anti-trade union laws in the world. Standards for employment rights also tend to only observe the minimum EU requirements and in recent years the costs of pursuing claims through the tribunals system has risen.

Policy-makers are currently discussing a post-Brexit immigration policy. Positions vary from continuing a similar system to the one we have at the moment to various levels of restrictions on the rights of EU citizens to work in the UK (from relatively moderate restrictions to banning unskilled migration).

Migrants with fewer rights will be more vulnerable to super-exploitation. Whenever and wherever this happens all workers suffer

A recurring proposal has been the use of time-limited visas for unskilled workers to meet the needs of specific sectors. These temporary worker visas would fill gaps in the economy and go alongside the end of a system of free movement. A currently suspended category of the points based system for non-EEA nationals, ‘Tier 3’, is based on this idea.

Not only is this visa time-limited but it is also tied to specific employers that act as the guest workers’ sponsor. Workers would not therefore have a right to move between employers without risking deportation from the UK, significantly increasing their vulnerability to super-exploitation. These workers would not have the protections that EU citizens currently do in the system of free movement, which includes a conditional right of residency.

Case studies clearly demonstrate the risks inherent in these types of visa system. They place too much power in the hands of the employer sponsor and violate important principles of a free labour market such as the right to move between jobs. As a result, the risk of super-exploitation is high. This is the conclusion the report draws from analysis of the following evidence:

  • Qatar World Cup 2022
  • Guest worker systems in Canada and Germany
  • UK Domestic Workers Visa for non-EEA nationals
  • ‘Posted Workers’ in the EEA

This system could have the unintended consequences of boosting regressive practices in the UK labour market, which free movement offers some protections against (even though it is often wrongly associated with these methods). For instance, it could strengthen foreign only recruitment practices for the new guest worker schemes and empower the international agencies that have been accused of deliberately using migrants to undercut UK workers.

By increasing the vulnerability of migrant workers to exploitation, the return of Tier 3, or a similar system of guest worker visas, could create downward pressure on the pay and conditions for other workers in the labour market.

This is particularly concerning given the relatively weak workplace rights and extremely poor trade union rights that are features of the UK labour market.