Solidarity with migrant workers

Submitted by Anon on 12 September, 2006 - 12:44

By Stan Crooke

In May 2004 ten more states joined the European Union. Eight of these were the so-called “A8” states from ex-Stalinist Eastern Europe. Since then, around 470,000 workers from the A8 states have entered the UK workforce.

Although some of the tabloids have responded by whipping up more anti-immigration and anti-foreigner prejudices, employers and the government have generally welcomed their arrival. And it’s easy to see why.

43% of the A8 nationals now working in the UK are aged between 18 and 24. 39% of them are aged between 25 and 34. 82% of them have no dependants. 97% of them work full-time. 80% of them earn between £4.50 and £5.99 an hour. Unless they have worked continuously for a year, A8 workers have no entitlement to benefits. Overall, 48% of A8 workers are in temporary jobs. In some branches of the economy 82% of them are on temporary contracts.

In other words, A8 workers are predominantly young single people working full-time in temporary low-paid jobs, and denied any access to benefits. Like all migrant workers, they are significantly less likely to be in a union than UK nationals.

Surveys suggest that a large proportion of A8 workers intend working only short-term in the UK. That is why trade unions have had no truck with the tabloid theme of “foreigners taking jobs away from British workers”. Instead, on paper at least, the emphasis has been on recruiting A8 workers into unions and developing new recruitment strategies which engage with their particular concerns.

“Our top priority is about recruitment and organising. At home, that means recruiting and organising migrant workers (including illegal workers), and demanding that they get the same terms and conditions as indigenous workers. It means working with colleagues in other European countries to ensure that union cards are recognised across Europe,” wrote Owen Tudor, head of the TUC’s EU and International Relations Department, in a recent issue of European Review.

The TUC has initiated a series of regional projects to promote trade unionism amongst migrant workers. It has also produced a series of leaflets on workplace rights and health and safety laws in the languages of the A8 states.

In its Agency and Migrant Workers handbook, USDAW stressed: “Migrant workers are often particularly vulnerable in the workplace. They are also much more likely to be exposed to racism and racist attacks than other agency workers. The best way we can protect migrant workers is to recruit them into union membership. Issues affecting migrant workers must be firmly on the agenda in our negotiations with companies where they are employed.”

Organising Migrant Workers in Construction, the report of a recent joint TUC-UCATT recruitment drive amongst migrant workers (predominantly A8 nationals) working in the construction industry in the North East of England identified the major problems confronting A8 workers.

Many of them were found to be sleeping in low-standard accommodation owned by their employers, with some having to sleep on the floor. Workers could not open bank accounts because their employers withheld documentation confirming employment. Some employers did not provide A8 workers with pay slips or a contract of employment. Many were being paid below union-negotiated rates of pay, some even less than the National Minimum Wage.

The report emphasised a campaigning approach to recruiting A8 workers: “Specific site meetings with migrant workers should be used sparingly [for reasons of logistics]. Instead, campaigns should be used. Rather than have a mass meeting, campaigns should be orchestrated around important migrant worker issues. This can include, if need be, either site meetings with those workers involved or a large mass meeting.”

However A8 workers represent only a minority of the migrant workforce in the UK, and, moreover, they are far from being the most exploited section of the migrant workforce.

Between 1993 and 2003 the number of foreign workers in the UK increased by 61%. By 2003, even before the expansion of the EU, there were an estimated 1,400,000 foreign workers legally employed in the UK, representing over 4% of the workforce. 40% of them came from the then 15 member-states of the European Union.

Since then the numbers of non-A8 foreign workers in the UK workforce has continued to grow. Last year 137,000 non-EU nationals were issued with work permits, a 10% increase on the previous year.

In some areas in certain branches of the economy now employ overwhelmingly non-UK workers. Of the 300,000 workers in London’s “hospitality” workforce, for example, 70% are non-UK nationals. The health service is likewise heavily dependant on recruiting employees abroad. 46% of dentists who began working for the NHS last year, for example, qualified overseas.

Foreign workers who are not EU-nationals are also predominantly in temporary jobs and on temporary visas. Workers in the so-called “Sectors-Based Scheme” are allowed to remain for a maximum of a year. Workers in the “Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme” can stay for just six months. “Working holidaymakers” from the Commonwealth countries can stay for up to two years. Work-permit holders are issued with visas and visa extensions valid for a total of five years.

Studies such as the TUC’s Overworked, Underpaid and Over Here – Migrant Workers in Britain and the Citizens Advice Bureaux’ Nowhere to Turn: CAB Evidence on the Exploitation of Migrant Workers have highlighted the super-exploitation to which many of these workers are subject.

Illegal deductions are made from their wages. They are denied paid holidays and statutory sick pay. Rates of pay can be lower than the minimum wage. Deductions from pay for tax and National Insurance contributions are pocketed by the employer. Workers are not provided with contracts of employment or pay statements.

Compulsory overtime is enforced and legal restrictions on maximum working hours are ignored. Personal documents, such as passports, are confiscated by the employer. And excessive and illegal charges are imposed for poor-quality accommodation, the “service” of being provided with work, and transport costs between accommodation and work.

Workers are vulnerable to such abuses because their immigration status (i.e. their right to stay in the UK, even temporarily) is dependent on remaining in employment — and, in many cases, on remaining in employment in the same job with the same employer.

They are in a far worse situation than A8 workers. A8 workers are citizens of member-states of the European Union, and thus have the right to remain in the UK if they lose their jobs, free to look for another job.

Beneath these workers there is yet another layer of foreign workers: those who work illegally and suffer the worst working conditions of all. These workers are mainly asylum-seekers, illegal entrants into the UK, overstayers, and those whose visa conditions do not include permission to work. In the most extreme cases, they are victims of trafficking whose working conditions in the UK amount to forced labour.

A motion passed at the 2005 UNISON national conference highlighted their situation:

“Trade unions in the UK have found a number of employers with up to a quarter of their workforce without papers or legal status, employed directly or via gangmasters and agencies. These workers are mostly paid cash-in-hand, at rates as low as £2.50 an hour, and made to work 80 hours per week without weekends or holidays, often under threat of deportation.”

As employers know full well, the illegal status of such workers makes them particularly difficult to recruit into unions.

When London UNISON ran a pay campaign in 2003 targeted at ancillary staff working for a private contractor in a London hospital, the employer demanded that staff produce documentation showing that they had the right to work in the UK. Some workers were sacked for failing to produce documentation, while others suddenly disappeared.

In January of 2005 the TGWU ran a recruitment campaign in a supermarket in South London with a workforce of 300. When union membership had more than quadrupled, management announced a check of immigration papers and called in the Immigration Service. One worker was arrested, and sixty others quit their work or simply disappeared.

These workers have no legal rights at all in the workplace. Even where a contract of employment is issued, it is legally null and void: because the employee has no right to work, the contract cannot be enforced.

Recent imaginative interpretations of the Proceeds of Crime Act have also resulted in the police and other authorities refusing to pursue employers who withhold pay from employees who do not have the right to work: since working illegally is a crime, the worker should not be allowed to enjoy the proceeds of the crime...

By way of contrast, no employer has ever had a share of their profits confiscated on the grounds that they are the proceeds of the same crime. In fact, legislation which makes it an offence to employ an illegal worker is a dead letter. Between 1998 and 2002 just 22 prosecutions for illegal employment were initiated, and only eight of those resulted in a conviction. And nearly a third of Immigration Service operations against illegal working are in response to complaints from employers: deportation can be so much easier than dismissal.

The increase in the number of non-UK nationals in the UK workforce raises a broader questions about the immigration policies being pursued by New Labour. It is simplistic, and wrong, to say that their goal is simply to minimise migration into the UK.

The “influx” of A8 workers is a particularly clear example of this. When the A8 states joined the EU, the conditions of accession allowed existing member-states to deny A8 nationals the right to move to their countries and work there. Twelve of the member-states decided to do so. Only the UK, Sweden and Ireland decided otherwise.

Since its election in 1997 the government has introduced a number of new schemes, and expanding existing ones, which facilitate the movement of non-UK nationals into the UK to work.

Immigration controls are designed to keep certain categories of people out of the UK, but they are not migrant workers. Immigration controls deter black people and poor people but allow, or even encourage, entry into the UK by other categories of people — rich people, skilled workers, and even unskilled workers if there is a demand for them by employers.

In the years immediately after the Second World War the government planned to “import” 800,000 Europeans into the UK under its “European Voluntary Worker Scheme” in order to meet post-war labour shortages. But the scheme failed to come anywhere near meetings its target. In the course of the 1950s the government therefore turned to “importing” Commonwealth citizens, especially from the Caribbean. By the late 1950s, around 25,000 workers from the Caribbean were arriving in the UK each year.

A racist backlash led to the introduction of work vouchers in 1962: “A” for those with an offer of employment; “B” for skilled workers; and “C” for the unskilled. The voucher scheme allowed a continuation of migration by skilled workers and workers who had already been offered a job, whilst throttling back the migration of unskilled workers. In 1965 the then Labour government scrapped “C” vouchers entirely.

The end of the post-war boom in the late 1960s and the subsequent growth in unemployment eliminated, for the time being, the need to import labour from abroad. The 1971 Immigration Act declared an end to all economic migration, save for a small number of skilled workers who met the criteria of the work-permit scheme.

New immigration rules also made it more difficult for Commonwealth citizens who had arrived in the UK from the mid-1950s onwards to be joined by their family members. The latter were not wanted by employers and the government.

In the years following the 1971 Act a stagnant labour market in conjunction with the new immigration controls restricted economic migration. By the mid-1990s, however, there was a renewed demand by UK employers for migrant labour — at the two extremes of the labour market. Some employers wanted to recruit the most skilled workers from an increasingly globalised labour market. Some wanted to recruit the cheapest and most unskilled labour in order to benefit from the deregulated, and de-unionised, labour market created by the Tories.

The Tories were too busy attacking refugee rights and pandering to anti-foreigner racism to be able to respond to employers’ demands for migrant labour.

New Labour carried on with the Tories’ attacks on refugees. But this was part of a much broader approach, termed “Managed Migration”. New Labour would be even harder on certain categories of would-be migrants (epitomised, above all, by the “bogus asylum-seeker”), whilst simultaneously meeting the needs of big business, facilitating the migration of both skilled and unskilledworkers.

“Managed Migration” has resulted in the introduction of new schemes for migrant labour (e.g. the Highly Skilled Migrants Programme), the extension of existing schemes (e.g. an increase in the number of work-permits issued each year), and an “open door” policy for EU migrant labour (e.g. granting A8 nationals the right to work).

But the other side of “Managed Migration” is the continued crackdown on asylum-seekers, an increased use of detention for immigration offenders, an expansion of Immigration Service “sweep and search” operations in pursuit of immigration offenders, and tighter controls on those who are given permission to work in the UK.

(The debate about whether workers from Bulgaria and Romania should be allowed to enter the UK workforce after these countries join the European Union next year is really about about whether employers in the UK have any need for a further source of migrant labour.)

New Labour’s “Managed Migration” policies are, in many ways, a re-run of the arguments of the early 1960s.

At that time it was argued that immigration controls were required in order to promote good race relations: white people would live harmoniously with black people, safe in the knowledge that they were not about to be overwhelmed by the latter. And now UK workers can welcome foreign workers with open arms, safe in the knowledge that their numbers are controlled by “Managed Migration”.

The TUC has bought into New Labour’s “Managed Migration” philosophy. In September 2005 the Home Office, the CBI and the TUC issued a joint statement, Managed Migration: Working for Britain, which declared:

”The Home Office, CBI and TUC have today issued a joint commitment to support managed migration in the interests of the UK economy. We need the skills and enthusiasm of people from around the world who have chosen to make their homes here and to contribute to our economy and society. To help them do that, the country needs to invest wisely in their potential within the context of a migration system that is managed in the national interest.”

In order to welcome, recruit and organise migrant workers into trade unions, it is not necessary to endorse the latest version of state immigration controls.

Workers can come to this country – but only if the bosses want them. And once in the UK, then, in the absence of union protection, they can “contribute to our economy and society” by working long hours for low pay and without any employment rights.

It is good that the trade union response to the arrival of A8 workers has been to go out and try and recruit them. (It would be even better if, having recruited them, unions went on to run campaigns and organise industrial action in pursuit of better working conditions, rather than, in the manner of USDAW, signing sweetheart deals with employers. But recruiting A8 workers is at least a start.)

It is also good when trade unions refuse to draw any distinction between legal and illegal workers in terms of their immigration status in the UK.

The Gangmasters Licensing Act — in the drafting of which the TGWU was heavily involved, and which had the backing of the TUC — states that a person is still a worker for the purposes of the Act even if he/she “has no right to be in, or work in, the UK.” For the purposes of the Act, therefore, there is no such thing as an illegal worker.

The idea that there is no such thing as an illegal worker should be the principle at the heart of how trade unions organise non-UK nationals working in the UK.

Without losing sight of the fact that migrant workers can face very different problems — an A8 worker, for example, is in a very different situation from a failed asylum-seeker — workers rights should not dependent on immigration status (or lack of it), any more than they should be dependent on nationality, skin colour, or gender.

But accepting that there is no such thing as an illegal worker is necessarily in conflict with New Labour’s ‘Managed Migration’ polices. At the heart of the latter is a distinction between (legal) managed migration and (illegal) unmanaged migration. As long as that distinction is maintained, there will continue to be legal and illegal workers.

There is a world of difference between allowing workers to migrate to the UK because employers here want to exploit them, and supporting the right of workers, and others, to migrate to this country, or any other one, because freedom of movement is a basic right.

A trade union campaign for migrant workers rights must therefore go beyond promoting their rights once they have arrived in the UK and begun to work here. It must also involve a challenge to the immigration controls which deny workers – and not just workers – the right to move freely around the world.

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