The UK must stop blaming migrant workers for low standards and instead look to the state

Blog10 Dec 2018

The Brexit migration policy debate is misdiagnosing the problem in relation to our labour market and the so-called ‘undercutting’ of British workers. Border control and more restrictive immigration policies are presented as the solution to poor conditions or limited jobs for British workers. Presenting the problem in this way completely misses out the role of the state in regulating the labour market and enforcing labour law. Instead this analysis is focussed on whether or not migration should be restricted and to what extent. In a well-functioning immigration system, it should not be possible for employers to use migrant workers as a strategy to evade basic labour rights and employment law. As we await the government’s delayed White Paper on Immigration, it is crucial that we start having a more nuanced conversation about labour migration. Unless enforcement of labour standards is fully integrated into post-Brexit immigration reforms, all workers in the UK – migrant and citizen alike – may be worse off and at a higher risk of labour abuse and exploitation.

Migrant workers are not the cause of labour abuses

Migrant workers are often disproportionately represented in low-wage sectors with higher rates of labour rights abuse. This fuels the perception that migration is to blame for poor or worsening wages and conditions. When migration is presented as the problem, it can seem instinctive to respond by reducing or restricting the supply of migrant workers; if employers cannot hire migrant workers and pay them less, they will be forced to raise standards to attract UK workers. However, framing the issue in this way fails to see the role that the state should and does have in regulating the labour market and enforcing labour standards. Migrant workers are not the reason for the deterioration of workplace standards, or for non-payment of the minimum wage, or for the increase in insecure working arrangements such as zero-hours contracts.

Instead of blaming migrants, we should look at how successive governments have deregulated the labour market, failed to uphold workers’ rights, and made trade union engagement more difficult. As FLEX has pointed out the UK has one of the weakest labour inspectorates in Europe with less than 0.4 inspectors per 10,000 workers, despite the International Labour Organisation recommendation being one inspector per 10,000.

Labour market enforcement is a vital tool in preventing the exploitation of migrant workers. Having well-resourced inspectorates means employers know they may have their treatment of workers checked. At present, however, businesses can expect a visit from HMRC’s minimum wage unit on average once every 500 years. Alongside this, by creating a legislative environment which enables trade unions to work with, and protect, workers the government could empower the workforce itself to prevent the practices currently being blamed on the effects of migrant workers. These measures would help to ensure employment law is upheld for all.

Brexit means this matters now more than ever before

Recognising the importance of enforcing labour standards is particularly important now as Brexit is leading to significant changes to the UK’s migration policy. Unfortunately, the discussions around post-Brexit migration have focused almost exclusively on immigration enforcement and border control. The government is saying it will end free movement and restrict access to the UK labour market particularly for low-wage workers, a strategy that has been tacitly encouraged by the Migration Advisory Committee’s September report. In response, industries that rely on EU workers are pushing for continued access to a ready supply of migrants, including through the (re)introduction of low-wage work visas such as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. As FLEX has formerly explained, such temporary migration schemes contain serious risks of exploitation for migrant workers and are problematic for UK workers too, as they allow for the creation of an ‘underclass’ of workers that are easily exploitable and can be used to drive down labour standards.

Furthermore, Brexit also paves the way for the watering-down and removal of our employment rights. As FLEX has detailed before, a significant proportion of the UK’s employment protections come from and are enforced by the EU, and there is an appetite among a number of former and current cabinet members, including the Prime Minister, to reduce employment protections post-Brexit.

What should we do instead?

First, we need to recognise that the quality of workplace conditions and labour standards enforcement are strongly linked. Preventing exploitation of vulnerable low-wage migrant workers, and the subsequent undercutting of wages and working conditions throughout the labour market, requires integrating strengthened labour standards and their enforcement into immigration reform proposals. These should include licensing and monitoring of recruitment agencies; increased resources and training for enforcement bodies to carry out pro-active enforcement (including targeted inspections for high-risk sectors); and strong protections for the right to organise.

Second, we need to make sure that migration policy does not create increased risk of labour abuses and exploitation for migrant workers through restrictions like tied visas, requirements to stay in employer-provided accommodation, or restrictions on access to essential services such as healthcare, housing assistance and unemployment benefits. These sorts of features create situations in which workers have to choose whether to remain with exploitative employers or risk destitution, homelessness and deportation. Currently the best system for avoiding these risks is free movement. If continued free movement is not politically feasible, and all migrant workers are to be brought under immigration control measures, then we need to ensure any new migration programmes avoid features which raise the risk of exploitation.

Finally, we need to hold the government to its promise that “EU exit cannot, and will not, lead to weaker rights and protections in the UK”. The UK already has one of the most ‘flexible’ labour markets in the EU, combined with one of the weakest labour law enforcement structures in Europe, which means abusive employers are often able to get away with treating workers badly. The loss or watering down of important employment standards would leave workers in an even worse situation, and risk increasing the likelihood of labour abuses and exploitation.

The focus should not be on the impact of migrant workers on the labour market but on the structures which enable labour abuse and exploitation to occur. To solve this, restricting migrant workers is not the answer. Rather, we must be ensuring we have strong and proactive labour inspectorates, trade unions with the ability to act in their members’ interests and strong laws which protect the employment rights of all.