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TUC Response to the White Paper on immigration: 'Secure Borders, Safe Haven'

Issue date

Secure Borders, Safe Haven


The Trades Union Congress has consulted with its 71 affiliated unions, and this response takes into account the comments made by them.

The TUC is affiliated to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the International Confederation of Free Trade Union (ICFTU), and the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD.

These international organisations have been giving considerable attention of late to the issue of migration, with the ETUC in particular having responded to the European Commission’s Communication on immigration and asylum in 2001.

The TUC has had a long history of opposition to racism and xenophobia, and has consistently highlighted and campaigned against discrimination against ethnic minorities in the British labour market. The TUC was consulted in the review of Work Permit arrangements, made a submission to the House of Lords enquiry on Mobility within European Labour Markets, and is currently engaged in a joint project with sister confederation the CGT-Portugal aimed at assisting and recruiting Portuguese migrant workers in Britain. Building on these experiences, the TUC held a Conference in December 2001 (with European Commission support), entitled 'Trade Unions and Migration in an Enlarged EU'. This led to the publication in February 2002 of 'Migrant Workers, a TUC guide'. The bi-lingual guide to employment rights produced for the Portuguese project is now being translated into French, Polish and Italian.

Many workers born outside of the UK have chosen to become trade union members, and indeed there is a higher density amongst workers from Ireland, Caribbean countries and Nigeria than amongst British nationals.

General comments

The TUC welcomes the opportunity to contribute to a long-overdue discussion on migration, which takes into account the relationship between globalisation, the labour market, and asylum. There is a need for more debate on these subjects, to which the TUC has been contributing through the issue of discussion documents to affiliates, conferences and publications. As the White Paper points out, migration is a global phenomenon. While it is certainly growing over recent years, this is probably not out of proportion with the growth in the world population. It is also a two-way street, with hundreds of thousands of people, many of them British, leaving Britain each year.

The acknowledgement that migrants make a positive economic and cultural contribution to Britain is welcome, and contrasts with the frequently xenophobic coverage of some sectors of the media. In this context, it is important not to confuse the media’s preoccupation with illegal entry (which is identified in the first paragraph of Chapter 1) with the public’s priorities. In January for example, only 16% of those polled by MORI saw race/immigration as being an important issue in Britain. [1]

It is also important to recognise that the difference in approach between 'free movement' of EU nationals (which, it seems, needs stimulation and facilitation), and the 'immigration' of non-EU nationals (which must be controlled and restricted - or 'managed'), can itself be seen as contributing to xenophobia.

While the White Paper acknowledges the imbalances in the UK labour market which result in labour shortages in specific sectors and regions, the proposals for dealing with both the imbalances and shortages seem to be tentative. Many of the proposals focus on enforcement measures rather than increasing access to the labour market.

We share the analysis that there is a link between foreign policy and migration and refugee flows, and agree that there is a need to support the efforts of developing countries to promote economic growth and social development. However, we do not believe that trade liberalisation is a panacea. The White Paper ignores the fact that globalisation in its current form has brought poverty and instability to millions in developing countries, driving them to seek a living in the industrialised countries which are the main beneficiaries of the process. Emphasis needs to be given to the promotion of human (including workers') rights which are central to building democracy and poverty elimination

The TUC is concerned to ensure that UK (and EU) policies should not aim at cherry-picking highly skilled workers from developing economies that have devoted precious resources to their education and can ill-afford to lose them. While this is recognised in the White Paper, it is doubtful that this can be avoided by focusing on UK migration policy alone. Instead, the emphasis should be on aid, debt forgiveness, reform of IMF and World Bank policies and a reassessment of Government policy on arms sales and export guarantees. The aim must be to reduce the economic pressures forcing people to move to work, without unduly restricting their ability to do so.

Much concern has been expressed about the detrimental impact the asylum system has had on community relations, on measures to tackle social exclusion, and above all on efforts to promote the welfare and well being of children. One objective of the proposals in the White Paper must be to progressively address the problems caused by the present system. However, is seems that the primary intention of this White Paper is less to inspire a just asylum system adaptable to the demands placed on it by the global economy and events elsewhere, and more to deter asylum seekers.

Due attention should be given to the needs that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have which add to the costs of public service provision and may limit the capacity of providers to achieve the applicable national standards. This is particularly the case in respect of schools, where children may not be fluent in English and where children emotionally scarred by the ravages of political instability may find it difficult to engage with learning. The Government’s standards agenda - especially in the form of the crude 'league tables' - have undermined the principle of diversity and resulted in unreasonable demands and criticisms of public service staff. The Government must be committed to providing adequate resources to facilitate integration without undermining services.

The TUC believes that proposed measures should respond to problems which are significant and demonstrably real. The unfair exploitation of migrant workers is a real problem, racism and xenophobia are real problems. Migrants’ reluctance to integrate into British society is not a significant issue, but attracts undue attention in the White Paper. This sends the wrong message about migrants.

We accept the need for a coherent policy which plans for the future, which attempts to deal with widening gaps in prosperity, and which emphasises equality of opportunity. It must also be a compassionate policy which accepts Britain’s ILO, human rights and UN Charter obligations. The TUC’s detailed comments below are offered as a contribution to the achievement of such policies.

The comments are set out under the principal chapter headings used in the White Paper.

Citizenship and nationality

The debate on citizenship must be handled sensitively and to ensure that it does not lead to the expression of essentialist and exclusive notions of what it means to be British. Unfortunately, too much of the White Paper refers to a test of citizenship which promotes the logic that there can only be one form of British identity.

The emphasis in the section on preparing people for citizenship is too much focused on requirements, and not enough on provision. The implication is that there is reluctance on the part of applicants for citizenship (and by implication, other migrants) to learn English. The feedback received by the TUC suggests that present ESOL provision is severely under-resourced, leading to long waiting lists for English courses. Furthermore, such courses are not easily accessible to all migrants - citizens of the EEA for example.

Where unions have been able to promote English training as part of their activities in the Lifelong Learning field, there has been considerable take-up. The experience identified by other programmes (such as the Language to Work programme operated by Working Links in Brent) is that recruitment onto intensive English courses is both easy and highly effective in improving employability.

The TUC considers that, rather than emphasising compulsion, attention needs to be focused on providing adequate ESOL resources, not just in urban centres, but in those regions designated for dispersal of asylum seekers. It should also be made available to a wider range of migrants. As a major supporter of initiatives in this field, the trade union movement is more than happy to initiate and promote the acquisition of improved English (and in some cases, literacy) skills amongst migrant workers (and prospective workers).

It would be unhelpful if the proposals for testing for English and understanding of British society were seen as a further assault on the way of life of particular minority ethnic groups resident in the UK.

It is likely that the proposals will impact on schools. Teaching of citizenship is now a major issue and an important one, as long as it moves beyond the mere teaching of civics. This must provide for an education that promotes the celebration of diversity and cultural and ethnic difference.

The Government has stated its intention to alter the oath of allegiance, and asked for comments on this. The TUC has no strong views on this element, although it is difficult to detect any major difference between what is proposed and what is currently used. Some affiliates are concerned that the introduction of a citizenship test and the citizenship ceremonies would be unlikely to achieve anything beyond a superficial public relations impact.

The TUC welcomes a number of the measures proposed, particularly:

  • the removal of the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children;
  • the reduction of the age at which stateless children can be registered as British citizens;
  • removing the provisions in the Race Relations Act permitting discrimination in nationality functions, when authorised by a Minister.

However, the opportunity should be taken to restore the automatic right of citizenship to children born to parents resident in the UK.

Working in the UK

Britain’s economic performance is hampered by a number of factors, and the TUC sees the falling output level in manufacturing as being of particular concern. Skill shortages in this sector are of less significance than the exchange rate of the pound, and falling investment levels.

However, the TUC acknowledges that there is a serious problem of poor levels of training in the workforce as a whole, and that this must be addressed. We have argued for serious incentives for employers to provide time off for training, not just for vocational courses, but also for a wide range of lifelong learning, including basic skills. [2]

We have also argued [3] for a number of measures to increase labour mobility within the EU, such as:

  • At the national level, we have argued [4] that investment in affordable social housing helps to improve labour mobility. Instead, investment in social housing has fallen to half the level of 20 years ago, while the number of homes built by local government and housing associations has fallen by two thirds.
  • For those workers with 'supplementary' pensions (such as occupational or stakeholder schemes), portability between Member States is an important factor.
  • Language presents a serious barrier to mobility. While English is widely taught and spoken as an additional language throughout the world, this is not so common for other EU languages. Furthermore, the language skills of the indigenous British workforce remain very poor, and this reduces significantly the scope for such workers to seek employment in non English-speaking countries.

None of this is to argue for a protectionist approach to the UK labour market, merely to point out that there are a number of longer-term solutions to the specific problems of some sectors which must go beyond short-term measures related to migration. In health and education, for example, the shortfalls in professional staff need to be addressed as much in terms of retention as in recruitment of overseas workers. The TUC has now been asked to nominate trade union representatives on a number of Work Permit sector panels, where those representatives will make a useful contribution to the discussion of skill shortages.

The White Paper points out that domestic and EU workers may not be attracted by the pay and conditions on offer in some cases. There may well be problems brought about by the reluctance of some enterprises to pay an economically realistic price for services (such as harvesting, packing, cleaning or catering). At present their ability to get away with paying below the rate at which life can be sustained at a socially acceptable leveldepends on the maintenance of desperation and real or perceived vulnerability amongst some groups of workers. The reduction of this vulnerability by the granting of enforceable rights for such workers will contribute more to the balancing of this equation than any enforcement measures directed against them.

Work permit scheme A continuedexpansion of this scheme is envisaged. There is a continued need for trade unions to be fully involved and consulted, in all sectors. The TUC welcomes the recent invitation for unions to take part in the Financial Services Sector Panel. We would reiterate other points made in earlier consultations [5] :

  • Improved consultation needs to be accompanied by the establishment of a monitoring process which can check that employers do in fact act as they have claimed they intend to - on pay, training and the nature of the work which is covered. This could also help to ensure that those on Work Permits are not discriminated against in their terms of employment (pay, holidays, procedures etc) by comparison with resident workers. Again, case-by-case monitoring is not possible, but the examination of a sample of cases would help to reduce abuses.
  • The system should prevent the use of migrant workers as a cheap alternative to existing workers;
  • It should encourage employers to train to fill skill shortages rather than to poach already skilled workers from other countries;
  • It should prevent the undermining of established skill levels;
  • It should prevent the blocking of promotion or training opportunities which results from reserving certain posts for nationals of the parent company;

Furthermore, t here is a need for a system that allows workers on Work Permits to assert their rights without the fear of deportation as a consequence of any dismissal. This results from work permits being effectively the property of the employer.

The possibility of allowing agencies to apply for work permits is to be the subject of separate consultation, but experience leads the TUC to be very cautious about such an approach.

Charging Again as stated in 2000, there may be merit in charging employers for applying for work permits. A sliding scale depending on the imminence of commencement of the contract could be used to deter and penalise late applications. In some sectors late applications appear to be made deliberately late in order to enhance the probability of their approval.

Non-profit making enterprises (particularly those in the public sector) should be exempted, since this would be a pointless re-circulation of funds that are already in short supply. It may be useful to consider the use of such charges for improving training in the UK.

Highly Skilled Migrant Programme

It is not clear yet how widely used this will be, but from the criteria set out it is clear that workers from developing nations will have to clear far higher hurdles than those from countries such as the USA.

The scheme does provide individual workers with more rights than the Work Permit Scheme, in that they are not dependant on one particular employer to remain in Britain. However, it is restricted to groups of workers who probably are already less exposed to the more extreme forms of exploitation than those in say, catering occupations.

It is unlikely that this scheme will play much of a role in reducing labour shortages.

Seasonal Workers and Working Holidaymakers

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) is to be further expanded and similar arrangements considered for other sectors. Unions support the regulated and monitored approach to foreign casual labour currently used in agriculture through the SAWS scheme. However, we believe that for this to work and for the recent Curry Report recommendations (massively increase the number of workers included in the scheme) to be effective then more support must be given to the servicing bodies. It is apparent that the SAWS administration could not cope with a dramatic influx in the numbers it is dealing with. We must remember that any inappropriate initiatives could create a minefield of confusion and create an environment conducive to exploitation.

It should also be stressed that SAWS is effective in part because the industry is regulated, under the Agricultural Wages Board. It may be difficult to replicate the SAWS success in other sectors where no such regulation exists.

The proposal to revise the Working Holidaymakers Scheme is welcome. It is clear from the statistics that this system operates almost entirely in favour of young workers from the 'Old' Commonwealth. It would be hard to imagine a more blatant example of institutional racism, and it is to be hoped that this is one of the features which will be addressed in the review.

The TUC understands that further consultation over the expansion and revision of these schemes is planned for the Spring of 2002. It is vital that trade unions are able to contribute fully to this exercise, and are fully involved in the monitoring of any schemes of managed migration.

General points regarding working in the UK

Britain is a signatory to ILO Convention 97 - The Migration for Employment Convention. This includes an undertaking to ensure that there is 'an adequate and free service to assist migrants for employment, and in particular to provide them with accurate information.' The TUC does not consider that, at present, this undertaking has been met. This must be an important part of any coordinated response aimed at increasing legal routes into the labour market, and unions are willing to assist with the provision of such a service.

In part this should include an increase in trade union membership amongst migrants. Evidence exists showing that trade union membership is particularly advantageous for black workers (although by no means all of these will be migrants) [6] . We believe that this would also be the case for other groups of migrants, and programmes aimed at increasing trade union membership would be effective in defending them from unfair exploitation.

Finally, unions in a number of sectors have reported bad experiences related to recruitment and temporary labour agencies, and their exploitation of migrant labour. This includes occupations at both the professional (teaching, nursing, IT) and the lower skill (cleaning, catering, agriculture) ends of the labour market. The problems include, for example, charging of high fees, unreasonable deductions, dishonest depictions of pay and conditions, withholding of passports, slow payment of wages, and an absence of monitoring of professional standards. A detailed examination of such practices, together with consideration of possible regulation/licensing of agencies should take place, in consultation with unions, CABs and law centres.


The TUC welcomes the approach taken by the White Paper which considers asylum within the global context and which reinforces the need for international co-operation, including the establishment of a common asylum procedure throughout the European Union.

Such a procedure should reflect best practice in all respects - from the asylum application procedure and the determination of claims to reception standards and the integration of refugees - rather than minimum standards. The TUC would be most concerned if any EU standards resulted in the removal of the right to work which refugees in the UK currently have.

We welcome some of the measures contained in the White Paper such as the phasing out of the voucher scheme and the decision to replace it with a cash-based system as well as the recognition of the need to integrate refugees. However, on the whole, the measures relating to asylum primarily focus on controlling the movements of asylum-seekers and on facilitating their removal. Related to this, we note that the Government has decided to increase detention capacity by a further 40% to 4,000 places and that safeguards such as automatic bail hearings are to be abandoned. There is no mention of improving the quality of decision-making which has led to so many asylum seekers staying in the UK on appeal

Resettlement programme The proposed gateway scheme addresses the important issue of access to protection and acknowledges the fact that it is often very difficult for those suffering persecution to travel to the UK legally. The Government's reaffirmation that this scheme will be additional to current asylum procedures is welcome. It is important that the resettlement programme should not lead to a situation where those who travel to the UK are not afforded the same rights to asylum.

Reception standards The White Paper outlines a system of induction, accommodation, reporting and removal centres to secure a 'seamless' asylum process while upholding the dispersal principle. The White Paper also proposes to phase out the voucher system towards the end of 2002.

As we have stated, the TUC welcomes the decision to abandon the voucher system. Nevertheless, the support level for asylum-seekers will remain at 30% below current income support levels and is inadequate.

We welcome the Government's efforts to meet asylum-seekers' needs for information about the asylum and support processes and its recognition of the importance of identifying special needs early. Also welcome is the commitment from the Government to ensure quality legal advice for all asylum seekers. We believe that access to such advice is necessary throughout the asylum process, including at the induction stage, in order to ensure fairness and transparency. Nevertheless, we are concerned that the rather institutionalised approach combined with the dispersal principle may hinder rather than help the integration of refugees. The support of indigenous communities which have settled in the UK can be invaluable to new migrants. The system proposed by the White Paper denies them the opportunity to mix. In addition, accommodation centres may not provide people with the skills that are necessary for settling independently in the community.

To assist with the integration process, the Government should consider granting asylum-seekers the right to work from the start of the asylum process and to ensure that the new Application Registration Card is recognised as the standard work permit for asylum-seekers.

Refugee Integration The White Paper highlights the role of the National Refugee Integration Forum in promoting refugee integration. The Forum draws together local authorities, government departments and the voluntary and private sectors to monitor and steer the development strategy for integration. However, trade unions are not mentioned despite the fact that the work of the Forum includes addressing employment and training issues. This is a major omission, since unions could make a significant contribution to the work of the Forum. We urge the Government to involve trade unions in this Forum.

Asylum Registration Cards From January 31st, 2002 every asylum seeker to the UK - man, woman or child - has been issued with an Application Registration Card (ARC), or smart card. The TUC would hope that these cards will not be used to limit asylum seekers’ entitlement to other essential services, such as education or health care. The Government acknowledges that the introduction of an entitlement card would be a major step and has undertaken to consult widely on this matter, and we look forward to contributing to this process.

Access to financial support Uncertainty about how asylum seekers will gain access to their financial support, which may be linked to accepting accommodation, is a cause for concern. Asylum seekers who refuse to reside in a government detention centre, according to the Home Secretary 'will not be offered any alternative forms of support.' This, in effect, removes the 'voluntary' element to residing in a government accommodation centre and should be reconsidered.

Education provisions Unions are concerned that neither the children of asylum seekers, nor those educated alongside them should be disadvantaged. The proposal to provide education for refugees’ children in the proposed Accommodation Centres raises questions about provision, standards and inspection, and can hardly be said to contribute to successful integration. It is also important to ensure that there is adequate funding to schools and LEAs for the provision of education to refugees and their children in mainstream schools.

Trafficking, Illegal Entry and Illegal Working

There is a strong emphasis on dealing with 'traffickers' in the White Paper. It is not made clear, however, that this represents only a small proportion of all of those currently in Britain illegally. It is even less significant as a method of entry for workers (outside of the sex industry).

The Government is proposing new legislation on trafficking. If there is to be such legislation, it needs to refer to ILO Conventions, particularly No. 29 on Forced Labour and Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

Illegal working The White Paper recognises that illegal workers are vulnerable to extreme forms of exploitation, the avoidance of tax and National Insurance and undercutting of more scrupulous employers.

However, while acknowledging that illegal workers are often victims, the emphasis is on enforcement by immigration officials and police, and on tougher penalties for traffickers and others who benefit from illegal working. It is also suggested that more sources of information should be available to immigration authorities, including that which 'might be required from a broader range of social players'. This could place advice agencies and unions in an impossible position with regards to those seeking their assistance.

These measures are unlikely to deter employers of illegal workers, but will probably reduce the prospect of abuses (for example of the Minimum Wage, Working Time or Health & Safety Regulations) being reported by such workers.

We are particularly concerned about the situation regarding unregistered and unregulated ‘gangmasters’ in agriculture (and other sectors). Since 1997 there has been an inter-departmental government working party entitled ‘Operation Gangmaster’. Progress in this forum has been piecemeal and done little to create appropriate safeguards against the exploitation of foreign and local labour.

Regulation of employers should set the basis of any framework in this area. However, codes of practice (promoted by major customers) could provide great benefit in providing strong direction to agents to set terms above minimum legal standards. Such codes should look at issues like housing provision that is particularly relevant to foreign workers.

The Government has announced its intention to work with both business and unions in the area of illegal working, including the setting up of a high-level steering group to consider ways of improving compliance with rules on illegal working. The TUC already has policy opposing Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act, on the grounds that it will deter some employers from taking on workers who look or sound foreign. We would, therefore, wish to examine carefully the terms of reference for any steering group.

The paper makes welcome proposals that when victims of forcible labour and exploitation come forward they may be offered arrangements for their protection. This is in line with current EU proposals, but is hedged about with conditions. We would urge the Government to consider whether such proposals offer sufficient guarantees to a wide enough range of victims to have any real effect.

It is the view of the TUC that it makes little sense only to consider a few restricted legal routes into the labour market, when it is acknowledged that there is widespread illegal working in some sectors of the economy. We suggest that there should be further consultations involving government, unions, employers, advice services and representatives of migrant communities to consider the issue of regularising the status of at least some of these groups of workers.

The suggestion that all those providing assistance to illegal entrants (which we take to include those providing humanitarian assistance rather than seeking to profit) will now face penalties is a retrograde, and wholly unjustified step. We are also deeply concerned about the impact that a public immigration hotline will have on race relations.

Border Controls

The Government considers a strategy of rigorous prevention of breach of border controls to be necessary and amongst other measures, will control to deploy Airline Liaison Officers, use visa regimes and deploy immigration officers abroad to check passengers before they travel to the UK. We are concerned that this approach will deny people with a well-founded fear of persecution access to protection and will make them resort to using human traffickers, the very thing the Government wants to avoid.

Marriage and family visits

Media comment has focused on a suggestion in the white paper that communities practising arranged marriage might discuss as to whether more of these might be made within the settled communities. It is important that the Government fully appreciates the difference between arranged and forced marriages.

But the paper’s proposals also concern other matters - i.e. measures to increase the probationary period for leave to remain on the basis of marriage (bringing married partners into line with the rule for unmarried partners); simplifying procedures where there is clear evidence that a genuine marriage exists; and preventing persons applying to remain on the basis of marriage after entering the UK in a different category.

The TUC is opposed to any return to anything akin to the Primary Purpose Rule, or any associated measures (such as virginity testing) which were the subject of major campaigns in the past. We can see no justification for the extension from one year to two of the probationary period for spouses to qualify for a right to stay. We welcome the proposed equalization for unmarried partners, but this should take the form of a reduction in probationary period.

On family visits, the TUC would welcome the Government’s abandonment of an earlier proposal to introduce a financial bond scheme and the re-introduction in October 2000 of a right of appeal for unsuccessful applicants for family visits. The paper is worryingly vague about intentions to look further at family visitor appeals once a current review is completed.

[1] Published in British Public Opinion Newsletter, MORI Dec 2001/Jan 2002

[2] TUC Budget Submission 2002

[3] Mobility within European Labour Markets - Evidence to House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, October 2001

[4] Comprehensive spending review II - TUC submission, January 2000

[5] TUC Response to the Review of the Work Permit Arrangements, February 2000

[6] 'Unions and The Sword of Justice: Unions and pay systems, pay inequality, pay discrimination and low pay', David Metcalf et al, Centre for Economic Performance Discussion Paper 452, LSE. April 2000