The new Immigration Bill builds on the Immigration Act (2014) and has been similarly introduced with rhetoric that scapegoats migrants for social and economic problems caused by austerity and bad employers. The TUC adopted a position against the Immigration Act at its Congress in 2014 as it would increase the discrimination faced by BME and migrant groups, fuel unregulated employment and turn public sector staff into border guards. The new Immigration Bill will exacerbate these problems by introducing measures to criminalise undocumented migrant workers; restrict migrants’ access to services; increase document checks; and withdraw support for failed asylum seekers and their children.
The TUC believes that public concern about undercutting can only properly be addressed when undocumented workers have the legal right to work and a strong voice through a union to claim their rights at work. This would allow all workers to claim decent treatment and fair pay. Instead of this, however, the Bill will only fuel divisions between workers and tensions in society.
Criminalising work and wages
The TUC is concerned by the Bill’s measures to make it a criminal offence to work without leave to remain, or beyond the restrictions of a visa, and classifying wages earned in such employment as the proceeds of crime. We believe this will result firstly in an inequitable situation where those with a legal right to be in the country could face a sentence of up to 51 weeks in prison simply for working slightly beyond the restrictions on their visa. This is particularly likely to affect students who, in most cases, are only permitted to work a maximum of 20 hours a week.
Criminalising undocumented migrants simply makes it harder for bad bosses to be found out. Undocumented migrants are unlikely to report an exploitative employer to the authorities when they know they are likely to face a criminal charge for being found out. Bad employers can also threaten to report undocumented workers to the authorities if they complain about bad treatment or try to join a union and claim their rights.
This fuels unregulated employment, as employers are able to employ undocumented workers informally on a cheaper rate and on worse terms and conditions than workers they would employ legally. Encouraging unregulated market working not only increases exploitation but is also a drain on the economy, as workers are not as able to contribute to taxation through their wages.
Furthermore, forcing one section of the low-paid workforce to accept worse conditions has a negative impact on terms and conditions for all workers employed in low paid sectors.
Undocumented migrants should be provided with employment rights separate from their immigration status so they can report bad employers and be treated on equal terms with local workers.
This principle is enshrined in Article 23.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states ‘everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment’.
Director of labour market enforcement
The new Director of labour market enforcement must work closely with unions in order to accurately identify and tackle abuses in the labour market.
The TUC is concerned that in the UK migrant workers are often hired on worse contracts and pay than local workers, allowing bad bosses to use them to undercut other workers which simply fuels concern about immigration. Such abuse can only be tackled comprehensively through the extension of collective bargaining arrangements and rights to representation for unions because inspections and acting on complaints will only capture a sample of problems, whereas collective bargaining and union representation are continuous processes. The law on employment status should also be reformed to ensure that migrant workers and other vulnerable groups do not lose out on basic rights at work.
It is imperative that any centralisation of the work of the Employment Agency Standards (EAS) Inspectorate, HMRC’s National Minimum Wage team, and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority does not reduce the powers or remit of each agency. The TUC was concerned that the scope and powers of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority were reduced in 2013. In order to tackle exploitation the government should instead expand the resources of these agencies. It is vital that the GLA licensing scheme which has successfully improved working conditions for migrant workers in agriculture and fresh food processing is retained and indeed extended to cover more sectors with vulnerable employment such as care, construction and cleaning.
These employment enforcement bodies must also not be used as a means of immigration control but rather be neutral agencies to which vulnerable workers, whether documented or not, are able to report exploitation and seek redress.
English language requirement for public authorities
The TUC believes the Bill takes the wrong approach to improving English language skills at work. Rather than introducing penalties, the government should support employers and trade unions to deliver workplace based English language classes, for example, through Unionlearn. A recent study by the European Commission highlighted that English language classes delivered by trade unions in Leeds were important to enable migrant workers to improve their performance at work.
The TUC believes measures in the Bill to require public authorities to ensure each person who works in a customer facing role speaks fluent English are likely to increase discrimination. Unions already have considerable experience of dealing with disciplinary and grievance situations in relation to discrimination against workers whose language ability is questioned because of their accents.
The TUC questions the necessity of this provision as the government has not produced evidence to suggest those in customer facing roles in public authorities do not have an adequate level of English. In fact, evidence from unions shows adequate English language skills are already a requirement to be employed in customer facing roles in the public sector.
Requirements for document checks by landlords and banks
The TUC has concerns that the Bill’s requirement for landlords to check the immigration status of tenants and banks to check the immigration status of current account holders will encourage everyday discrimination against anyone who doesn’t ‘look’ British. These document checks will make it harder for migrants and BME groups to have access to essential services and turn staff in banking and housing into border guards. It is already too difficult for people - especially young people - to open back accounts, including the children of British citizens living abroad.
Closing off support for failed asylum seekers and their children
The TUC is opposed to government proposals to close off support currently available to failed asylum seekers via Section 4(1) and 4(2) of the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act and for asylum seekers with children via Section 95 of the 1999 Act.
While asylum seekers and their children remain in the country, local authorities have a duty of care towards them as stipulated in the Children’s Act (1989) and the Human Rights Act (1998). The government’s decision to withdraw support from asylum seekers will place additional costs on local authorities at a time when they are already spending £3.364bn on children in need of care and are suffering cuts dictated by the government’s austerity programme.
We believe these proposals will increase poverty amongst asylum seekers and their children which is already high. These proposals are also likely to compel more asylum seekers into unregulated employment to survive, fuelling the exploitation and undercutting discussed above.
The TUC believes the government must reverse cuts to local authority budgets so there are resources for them to fulfil their duty of care to failed asylum seekers and their children. We believe asylum seekers should be allowed to work so that they are able to provide for themselves and their families adequately and contribute to society.