BREXIT: How do we stand in solidarity with both migrant and UK workers at a time of great division?
16 February 2017
By Sarah Glenister, National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights
The future is uncertain for migrant workers in the UK as the government prepares to trigger Article 50 next month. Thus far, Theresa May has neglected to provide any assurances to the three million EU workers living in the UK that they will be able to remain in the country and in their jobs. As Jeremy Corbyn told the Guardian this week, the Tories have taken on a "hunger games approach to Brexit". "Families, jobs and homes are all in the balance," he said, accusing the Tories of "playing political games with people's lives".
Some anxious EU workers are now making plans to leave and fewer are entering the country. As a result, the CIPD has warned that employers are facing a recruitment crisis. Its latest Labour Market Outlook survey cautions that a near record number of vacancies remain unfilled due to labour and skills shortages, and the industries that rely the most on migrant workers account for 45% of unfilled jobs. In addition, over one in four employers told the CIPD that EU workers are considering leaving their organisation or the country in 2017. In healthcare and education the proportion of employers with this concern rose to nearly half. Such a mass exodus could put enormous pressure on the UK economy, and particularly on our public services. But how will it affect workers in the UK?
In some ways, immigration is a complicated issue for trade unions to address. While the labour movement has solidarity with workers across the world, the impact of free movement on UK workers has created enormous anxiety within some sections of the workforce. Indeed, Unite reported that its members have rated immigration as the most important political issue in their lives since 2009. As Len McCluskey told the Class Conference in 2016: "The free movement of labour is a class question".
"We are … past the point where working people can be convinced that the free movement of labour has worked for them, their families, their industries and their communities. It is fine to argue values and perspectives from the middle distance, but if it comes up against the reality of people's daily experience, these arguments will fail," he pointed out. Globalisation has thus far benefited the rich by pitting the poor against each other. Factories have relocated to developing countries to exploit cheap labour, leaving UK workers jobless and those overseas trapped in poor working conditions. Closer to home, free movement is being used to prop up the "flexible" labour market model, ensuring the supply of workers is always far greater than the supply of jobs, and thus driving wages and conditions down for all.
We stand in solidarity with migrant workers, whilst protecting those born in the UK, by refusing to kowtow to a narrative written by a rich elite: One that says workers should compete with one another for the benefit of the employer. By shifting the focus of employment law to collectively agreed wages and conditions, rather than statutory minimums like the minimum wage, and creating a universal employment status so that everyone is eligible for the same rights, we can remove the mechanisms by which employers use migrant labour to undercut other workers and empower workers to assert their rights. Through such reform, it would no longer matter whether a worker is hired through an agency or taken on as a permanent employee – both would be entitled to the same wages and rights, negotiated by workers for workers through collective bargaining at sectoral and enterprise levels.
As Len McCluskey said, if all workers, regardless of where they were born, were covered by a trade union agreement, we would transform a "race-to-the-bottom culture into a rate-for-the-job society".
The Institute of Employment Rights will tackle this issue at our Migration after Brexit event on March 15, where leading academics, campaigners and trade unionists will come together to discuss the labour movement's resistance to today's elitist vision for globalisation.