Why investment in public services, skills and working conditions can restore public trust in immigration system

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Published date
15 Jan 2018

The Home Affairs select committee has released a report today with some good proposals for building a national consensus on immigration. It suggests that agreement can be built around policies that address public concerns about integration and control and on issues like skills, public services and conditions at work. 

As TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady puts it, “today’s report needs to start a grown-up conversation about migration. Migrant workers make a vital contribution to the economy and public services. But far too often they are scapegoated thanks to bad bosses driving down conditions at work.The government must work with unions to crack down on employers who use migrants to undercut local labour. Giving unions access to more workplaces will help end exploitation. Collective bargaining can win fair wages for all. With Brexit on the horizon, we need urgent investment in skills, health, and housing. And a better-resourced Border Force.”

Public services

The report states the government should ‘guard against allowing immigration to be blamed for wider funding pressures on public services—including by challenging misinformation and ensuring appropriate funding for public services is in place.’  The TUC agrees that migrant workers have made a huge contribution, working in key industries, keeping our public services running and as members of our communities.

However, as we argued after the referendum in A fairer deal on migration, the contribution they make as taxpayers has not been reinvested into the areas that need it. We have called for a renewed and expanded migration impacts fund to ensure that funding is provided to areas where there has been rapid and recent migration and that have experienced cuts to services and de-industrialisation.  That fund would – taking local people’s views into account - guarantee quality public services, housing and skilled jobs.

Skills

The committee’s call for employers and government to invest more in skills is especially welcome. The report calls for an increase in the number of nurse training places over the next three years and for unions to be consulted about how to address skills gaps more broadly. It also suggests employers recruiting from abroad should have to commit to invest in training more workers in the UK.

Too many employers are using migrant workers as a substitute for training the UK workforce, while the government has cut training bursaries in areas such as nursing. The TUC has called on government and employers to significantly increase spending in training to fill skills gaps that have been widening.

We also support the report’s call to reverse the cuts the government has made to English language education.  Trade unions are playing a crucial role in providing language training in workplaces that has helped to build solidarity and enable workers to progress at work, but cuts have made it harder to deliver these classes.  These cuts have made it harder for migrant workers to get on at work and, crucially, be able to talk with their fellow workers about conditions and pay.  As the EHRC showed in their report on the cleaning sector, language is used in some workplaces as a means to divide and rule the workforce. 

Integration and control

Providing better language education would go some way to delivering the better integration that the committee calls for, and the migration impacts fund we have called for could do a lot more.

But the committee is also right to call for more resources for the Border Force, not only so that they can do their job properly, but also so that the public can have more confidence that immigration rules are being implemented properly and fairly.

Rights at work

The main area that needs more work is in the committee’s recommendations to tackle the use of migrants to undercut other workers. The committee acknowledges that this is a recurrent concern, particularly in sectors like distribution where practices such as those Unite exposed in SportsDirect can be found. The report has disappointingly few recommendations for the stronger labour market protections needed and makes no mention of the role of trade unions in addressing exploitation.  

As the TUC flagged up in our submission to the committee, trade unions are playing an essential role in preventing undercutting. TUC analysis has shown how union collective agreements guarantee that employers pay both both migrants and UK workers decent rates of pay and provide them with stable contracts.  Thus, while manufacturing and the hotel/restaurant sectors employ similar numbers of migrants, workers in manufacturing are paid over £300 more a week as the coverage of union collective agreements is significantly higher. 

Unfortunately in the private sector there are too many employers that do not negotiate with trade unions which has left workers, particularly in sectors like distribution, hotels and cleaning, vulnerable to exploitation. The TUC is calling for the government to support the extension of collective bargaining through sectoral bodies and to enable trade unions to access more workplaces to organise workers to demand better treatment.

We also need stronger enforcement of employment rights by government regulatory bodies to ensure that, where unions are not present, employers can’t get away with exploiting migrants or any other worker.  The committee calls for an expansion of the powers of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which regulates employment in sectors such as fisheries and agriculture where workers are particularly vulnerable.  But other bodies - such as HMRC which enforces the minimum wage and the Employment Agencies Standards Inspectorate (EASI) – also need more cash. EASI currently has just eleven inspectors to cover the entire country. 

We are also calling for new laws to prevent exploitative zero hours and agency contracts that have enabled employers to exploit workers, many of whom are migrants.

Conclusion

The committee’s report does not cover how we address migration after Brexit, but many of the measures outlined in this report – which could be implemented now – could be supplemented by other measures already allowed under the single market.

Expanded rights at work and collective agreement coverage, combined with investment in skills, public services and housing, and measures to address integration and beef up the Border Force would go a significant way to demonstrating to the public that immigration policy was addressing public concerns.