TUC Response to Home Office Consultation on revision of the Working Holidaymakers Scheme

Issue date
20 Aug 2002

Consultation on review of Working Holidaymakers Scheme

The TUC, having responded to the Government’s White Paper 'Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain', is submitting the following response to the Consultation Document which fulfils the commitment in the White Paper to review the existing Working Holidaymaker Scheme for Commonwealth citizens.

Introduction

The current scheme is small-scale. At about 40,000, the annual entrants represent only 0.16% of the workforce. However, the changes proposed are likely to alter the nature of the scheme by expanding it into a more explicitly labour market scheme. It will be vital, therefore, to accompany any changes by the institution of a proper monitoring mechanism, which includes the participation of trade unions, to ensure that abuses of the workers are not occurring, and that the scheme is not being used to undermine pay, conditions or training opportunities.

The TUC pointed out in its submission to the White Paper that the scheme is so obviously discriminatory against entrants from poorer countries as to represent a clear example of institutional racism. This alone would be ground for its revision. It is to be welcomed that the consultation document recognises that the scheme does not operate fairly, although it stops short of pointing to the racist bias in it.

There is no current relationship of the scheme with labour market conditions and shortages, reflecting the 'cultural' nature ascribed to the visits. This also means that workers may go where they choose, with remarkably few restrictions. Even those restrictions which do exist (on 'pursuing a career', or having to work part-time, for example), are frequently breached with no sanction being taken. Indeed, where shortages of skilled labour are particularly intense (in teaching, for example), the practice of pursuing a career is given official sanction by the issue of work permits to permit the retention of staff who originally entered under the scheme. In other sectors, (bar work in London, for example), the supply of entrants under the scheme has become a key source of labour.

This means that the scheme was already starting to operate, to some extent, as a labour supply mechanism. However, there is a total absence of any sort of monitoring, or of any mechanisms for the systematic provision of advice on employment rights to entrants.

The TUC has not been hostile to the idea of opening up legal routes into the British labour market. However, concerns do exist regarding the effect that any schemes might have on the pay, conditions and job security of existing workers, and on the training and personnel development programmes of employers. The TUC is anxious to ensure that short-term labour migration is not seen by policy makers as a solution to recruitment and retention problems in key sectors. Finally, experience has shown that new entrants to the British labour market can be highly vulnerable, and that unscrupulous employers (frequently agencies) exist who will take advantage of that vulnerability. Care must therefore be taken to ensure that workers are both aware of their rights, and able to enforce them if necessary.

The document responds to some of the specific questions raised in the consultation document, and makes some additional points which the TUC would wish the Government to take into account.

Specific questions

  • How can the scheme be expanded by attracting more Commonwealth applicants, and should it go beyond the Commonwealth? (7.4, 7.5)

Anecdotal evidence from the Commonwealth suggests that little attempt is made to promote the scheme outside of the four countries providing the bulk of the entrants (New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa). Information regarding the scheme should be provided in all countries where the scheme will be applicable. This needs particular attention in Commonwealth countries from which black applicants might be expected. Steps should also be taken to ensure that any tests as to the resources of applicants are not such as to automatically disqualify entrants from poorer countries (or the poorer communities in the 'Old' Commonwealth). Promotion of the scheme via reputable bodies is important (trade unions perhaps), since potential exists for exploitative agencies to abuse workers.

The TUC has no objection to expansion of the scheme beyond the Commonwealth. However, it will be necessary to guard against such expansion resulting in a continued bias against Black and Asian applicants from the Commonwealth countries not currently providing many entrants.

· Should the criteria be extended in terms of age and duration of visa? (8.3, 9.4)

In our view, there are no pressing reasons for opposing this. However, any expansion of the scheme will make it more into a labour supplying mechanism. This has strong implications for the measures taken to ensure that workers are protected and not used to undermine existing terms and conditions.

· Should conditions on the balance between working and holiday during the visit be changed? (11.6, 11.7)

Such restrictions as already exist are clearly not enforced now, so retaining them would be an empty gesture. It seems likely that, were they to be retained following a relaxation of the entry qualifications, closer attention would be paid to the intentions of those from poorer countries. While it might be thought possible that entrants from the 'Old' Commonwealth may have access to independent means, and thus be able to subsist by working during only part of their visit, questions might be raised regarding those from poorer countries. Removal of this restriction would reduce the possibility that the discrimination inherent in the current scheme continues.

· Should work in any job or occupation be permitted? (12.3)

Before judgements could be made about which employment might be taken by entrants, there would have to be systems for making such labour market determinations, and for subsequent monitoring. In the view of the TUC, resources would be better devoted to ensuring that entrants are not exploited by unscrupulous employers. However, care should be taken to ensure that, where appropriate, checks are made on qualifications and language ability where there may be a danger to health and safety.

· Should there continue to be no limit on time spent with one employer? (14.3)

The TUC sees no value in such a restriction. This could only result in establishing a group of workers who could not achieve some of the key (service based) employment protections.

· Should switching from the Working Holidaymaker Scheme into work permit employment be permitted? (17.2)

This occurs now, even though not strictly speaking permitted. There seems to be no good reason to prevent it, although the TUC remains concerned over the imbalance of power for workers employed on work permits, whose residence in Britain may be linked to remaining in the employment of the employer holding the work permit.

· Should there be a separate scheme for EU candidate countries, and should the entry criteria and employment restrictions differ? (18.5, 18.6)

The TUC is in favour of EU enlargement, and considers the freedom of movement for workers to be equivalent to all the other freedoms (capital, goods and services). It therefore favours anything which may lead to a smoother integration of candidate states into the EU.

Special arrangements of some sort may be necessary for EU candidate countries, since most of the candidate states enjoy visa-free entry to the UK. However, since freedom of movement is likely to become established within a few years of enlargement, the design of a separate scheme may prove to be a waste of resources.

Additional points

The revision of the scheme is being undertaken as a result of labour market considerations. Proper attention musts therefore be given to issues not included in the current scheme.

The consultation document does not enquire about the need to protect the interests of the Working Holidaymakers themselves. In the view of the TUC this is a serious omission. Attention needs to be given to the prevention of abuse of such workers. This should include the provision of advice on employment rights and where to go to obtain assistance. This may need to be provided in languages other than English.

The interests of the spouses and families of Working Holidaymakers should also be considered, and provisions made to permit them remain during any stay.

Working Holidaymakers will be paying tax and National Insurance. Consideration needs to be given to ensuring that they are able to benefit from any entitlements that accrue from this, perhaps through bilateral arrangements with home countries. They should also be entitled to the same benefits and health care that a UK national with the same contribution record would enjoy.

Finally, the TUC would like to see some form of regular monitoring of the scheme, those entering under it, and employers of entrants in order to ensure that this does not become a mechanism for perpetuating low pay, poor conditions and a lack of training. Such monitoring should include unions, employers, representatives from migrant communities and advice agencies as well as government. It should also consider the effect that the scheme may be having on developing countries and their need to retain skilled workers.