Why are migrant workers in the News?
In May 2004 the first “accession” states were integrated into the European Union. Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (known as the “A8″) joined. The media has highlighted the numbers of migrant workers from these countries who have traveled to Britain since then.
How many have come?
On 22 August 2006 the Home Office published a review of migration from outside Europe and from the A8 countries. Its “Accession Monitoring Report” indicated that between May 2004 and June 2006, 447,000 A8 workers had registered to work here, of whom 62% came from Poland, the largest country by far among the A8. This was many times higher than government had estimated would come here.
Who are coming?
Most of the new A8 workers are young and single - 43% between 18 and 24. A further 39% of all these registered workers are between 25 and 34.
Did the government impose any restrictions?
In May 2004 Cyprus and Malta were given full membership of the “Free Movement of Workers Agreement” but the other 8 countries were subject to a 7-year transitional period. This means that the 17 “full member countries” can impose restrictions on the access of A8 workers to their national labour markets up until 30 April 2011. Sweden and Ireland are the only two countries allowing complete freedom to work. The UK require workers to register within one month of finding work (at a cost of £70) and does not allow any claim for unemployment benefit within the first twelve months of working here. Restrictions in France and Germany are much tighter.
What has been the political reaction?
The government has given out mixed signals. On the one hand the Home Secretary, John Reid told colleagues (according to the Independent): “I don’t believe in the free movement of labour: I believe the situation should be managed. You could hear the same from ethnic minorities. There’s nothing racist about it. On August 7 he issued a statement saying that the capping of immigration was a way of taking the issue of immigration “away from the party political football” to “get away form this daft so-called politically correct notion that anybody who want to talk about immigration is somehow a racist.” New Labour has announced plans to introuduce restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians to limit their rights to work here when their countries join the EU in May 2007. Many view the proposals to introduce work permits as unworkable (partly due to monitoring difficulties and partly because of loopholes such as the exemption for self-employment).All this contrasts, however, with comments from Ed Balls, the secretary to the Treasury, who said that, the influx of workers: “helped to keep the lid on wage growth”.Public opinion has tended to be concerned about the demands on resources due to the large numbers involved and increased competition for work (particularly low-paid and agency work).
What about the Bosses?
Many employers favour migrant labour. They favour “unlimited” immigration from the new EU states. Many are associated with the “Business for a New Europe” group. Among the supporters of this line are the UK chiefs of Sainsbury, Centrica (which owns British Gas), Merrill Lynch and the Wall Street bank, with support form Boots, Carphone Warehouse, BP and the National Grid.
How are migrant workers treated?
Migrant workers are being exploited. There have been many reports on the terrible and often unsafe conditions which A8 workers have been subjected to. There are many instances where they have not even got the minimum wage due to spurious deductions made by employers for transport or accommodation.
Shouldn’t we try to recruit them and raise their standards?
Most unions have adopted this policy. For example Alan Ritchie the General Secretary of UCATT (a construction union) has said: “I think that for the future we have to protect and raise the standards so that there is no more of the naked exploitation that we have found over the past few years.”
What does Solidarity think of this?
We feel that this policy is unlikely to succeed. It is difficult to persuade the new migrant workers of the benefits of union membership. Many Unions have problems recruiting workers generally but migrants pose a particular problem for the following reasons: -
First, they know that if they lose their job before they have completed the 12 months qualification period for any kind of rights or benefits, they often have to go back home. During this 12-month period what a Union can do for them is also limited.
Second, half of all registered workers say they do not intend to stay in the country for more than two years. These workers are likely to want to earn money, send it back and go.
Third, 49% of those registered are in casual jobs, often as agency temps. Agency temps do not have full employment rights.
Fourth, the main advantage to employers in hiring such labour is that it is cheap. By joining a Union and asking for higher rates migrant workers are losing their main selling point.
In Construction an estimated 10 per cent of all workers are A8 migrants. UCATT have recognised the negative effects of this: “every time workers on union-negotiated rates were laid off in favour of low-paid migrant workers it was a propaganda gift to the BNP” (Willie Whalen - Northern Region). Yet there is little evidence that their policy of attempting to recruit migrants has substantially countered or even affected these trends.
What should Solidarity do then?
Our main focus is on the bosses using and exploiting migrant workers. We must oppose any attempt to use migrant workers as a means of holding down or undercutting wages. We must resolutely enforce safety standards in the workplace (including issues surrounding English language comprehension and communication), minimum wage and other legislation. Where employers seek to use non-unionised migrant labour to damage the interests of our members we should aim to expose them and shut them down till they alter course. If Solidarity decides to establish a political fund we should consider how best to use this to lobby against firms who routinely support policies such as “unlimited” immigration which might depress the wages or otherwise harm the interests of our members.
Our Brothers and Sisters in other Unions who are failing to implement realistic policies to counter this threat must be persuaded either get their policy changed or defect to us.
Solidarity will speak out and act on behalf of British Workers.
(c) Copyright Patrick Harrington, 2007. All rights reserved.