On International Migrants Day, Owen Espley explains how Brexit will make life even worse for migrant workers.
The UK government is throwing migrants under the bus to win votes for its unpopular Brexit deal.
The government’s much awaited white paper on immigration has been caught in the cross fire between those who wish to reduce immigration at any cost, and those who pander to UKplc’s desire to continue to recruit low-paid EU migrant workers.
But the plans leaked in The Sunday Times suggest that those who want to restrict numbers have come out on top. Left out of the discussion are the migrant workers who the policies will affect. The discussion also fails to address how the UK immigration system will ensure that workers’ rights are respected.
In reality, Brexit is set to significantly undermine the rights of many migrant workers.
The government’s expectation that all EU citizens register for ‘settled’ status will inevitably leave some people behind, no matter how simple the process. Those who don’t register will become subject to the ‘hostile environment’, which strips people of critical rights such as the ability to access housing, to access bank accounts and of course the right to work. Just as members of the Windrush generation who had not taken the arduous, bureaucratic steps to establish their rights were caught up in harsh immigration controls, so too will EU citizens who fail to register.
The white paper will also set the framework for future EU migrants to the UK. Government proposals leaked to the media are calculated to bridge the gap between the two sides of ‘reduce’ or ‘recruit’ by restricting the rights of migrant workers.
Proposals include restricting low paid workers to 11-month visas (presumably so they don’t count towards the net migration target), as well as two-year youth visas.
The justification for restrictions is to address (misguided and inaccurate) concerns about migrant workers’ impact on the pay and conditions of non-migrant workers. Yet, ever stricter restrictions inevitably push down the pay and conditions of migrant workers and drag down conditions for all workers.
With around 11% of the UK labour force being non-UK nationals, how the immigration system affects workers’ rights has a major impact across the labour market. Some sectors enjoy an even higher proportion of migrant workers.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme, the announcement of which was brought forward, highlights the issues at play. The money required to pay for travel and visas up-front make workers more vulnerable to debt bondage (a form of modern slavery), as low paid workers take on debt to pay them. Where visas are tied to particular employers (or types of work), workers can face deportation (or at least the threat of it) if they stand up for their rights or try to escape exploitative conditions.
Requirements for EU citizens to pro-actively register, time-limits, and tying workers to particular employers or sectors, will all lead to a rise in the number of workers who lose their right to work and become irregular workers – either through failing to jump the necessary bureaucratic hurdles or otherwise not meeting the requirements.
The brutal hostile environment policies of this government effectively remove almost all labour rights from these workers.
All the government agencies tasked with enforcing workers’ rights (HMRC’s National Minimum Wage enforcement team; the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate; Health and Safety Executive; and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority) work hand-in-hand with immigration enforcement.
Many low-paid migrant workers are unaware of their rights, and even when they do have the right to work, they can be afraid to approach these bodies for fear they will be reported to immigration enforcement and deported.
The already underfunded UK labour-rights inspection bodies should be firewalled from immigration enforcement. This would enable them to focus on their core task of tackling labour rights violations, and allow workers to access them – to report and tackle their own exploitation – without fear of deportation, whatever their immigration status.
The restrictive immigration controls we have at present – and those envisaged for future low-paid EU migrants create ripe conditions for the exploitation of workers and low pay that too many migrants face.
These are then used to justify increased immigration control in an ever downwards spiral. Instead, the immigration system should aim to ensure that all workers can enjoy their basic rights, regardless of their status.
Without the ability to enforce their rights, migrant workers are in no position to bargain for improved conditions. In place of this devil’s bargain, between those who desire ever less migration and the profit motive, the Immigration White Paper should acknowledge that including the workplace within the hostile environment is not worth the negative consequences it creates.
Ending “the hostile environment” at work and decriminalising irregular workers would help to tackle the exploitation of migrant workers, and so help to push up conditions across the labour market.
Only by granting all workers equal rights, regardless of immigration status, can we stop a race to the bottom that drives down conditions for everyone.
However, if you take this approach of expecting the immigration system to serve the public interest, then the entire “hostile environment” policy would start to collapse. By eroding the universality of basic rights to health, housing, and work, it inevitably undermines those rights for everyone.
The time has come to end the hostile environment. If the immigration white paper proposed this, it really would be a Brexit dividend.
Owen Espley is a senior labour rights campaigner at War on Want.
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