We shouldn't kid ourselves that removing the rights of European workers will help their British colleaguesby Eleanor Penny / September 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
When it comes to forthcoming Brexit negotiations, the cat’s out of the bag—according to leaked documents, thousands of EU migrants face being summarily deported. As the government’s spectral plans for Brexit are gradually, painfully fleshed out, sneaking suspicions have been confirmed that the debate was not really about cabbage regulation or fisheries, but a proxy-vote on the acceptable level of contempt with which we can treat migrants.
According to leaked “highly sensitive” documents, the government’s Brexit plans include an immediate end to freedom of movement in its current form, along with a raft of measures putatively designed to curb EU migration.
What the measures propose
According to the leak, the vast majority of EU migrants will lose their right to settle in the UK. If they wish to stay for more than a few months, they will need a biometric residence permit. Low-skilled workers will be allowed to stay for a maximum of two years; high-skilled workers, three to five. Allowed, that is, if they can find legal work: residence permits will not be given to anyone still seeking a job, and residents will be given preferential treatment on the job market.
Combine this with existing limits on welfare access for temporary residents and slated restrictions on the right to family reunion, and life for perspective EU migrants looks pretty bleak. If the plans go ahead in their current form, new arrivals risk being bussed in short-term to plug gaps in the job market, stripped of social protections, isolated from their families, and adrift in communities in which they are unable to put down roots.
The documents claim that these measures are designed to defend the rights of British workers—with something of a schoolmarmish insistence that this is for our own good, as some bitter-smelling concoction is shoveled unceremoniously down the throat of the UK electorate.
In reality, however, the proposals are a rather transparent sop to hardline Brexiteers.Though May’s tenure as PM has been pockmarked with graceless volte-faces, she’s never wavered in her determination to deliver a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants—even before the reality of Brexit was but a glint in Nigel Farage’s eye.
Now, feeling her grip on the throne slipping day by day, she looks to outpace premiership rivals in the race to deliver the hardest crackdown on migration. True, the free-marketeers in her cabinet, still wedded to freedom of movement, haven’t welcomed the measures—to say nothing of the 27 remaining EU states, who might be irked to see their citizens treated as determinedly second-class.
The measures won’t help British workers
It’s worth repeating the now-controversial stance that people deserve basic dignity and working rights irrespective of which country issued their passports. But even if you’re theoretically willing to trade the living conditions of migrants for the promise of an improved life for UK nationals, it remains unclear how the plans will actually deliver—in fact, it could make things worse for British workers.
The logic goes that immigrants drive down wages, and so curbing immigration will return us to the halcyon days of pre-globalised industry, of high wages for the honest British worker. There’s only one little snag: immigration doesn’t, in fact, drive down wages. This week, we learn that, according to Vince Cable, May repeatedly suppressed academic studies debunking that claim.
The proposals specifically target migrants in so-called ‘low skilled’ sectors, putatively freeing up a load of easy jobs that could just as well be performed by Britons struggling to secure gainful employment. But ‘low-skilled’ work is not quite what one might expect; peel back the jargon, and you’ll find that ‘low-skilled’ workers include dental technicians, health and safety officers and air traffic controllers. (In response, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration has condemned the use of the moniker but as a patronising tactic to devalue certain sectors, justifying low pay.)
“Low-skilled” roles are anything but
These “low-skilled” roles, then, require training and experience, and we can only hope to plug the gap long-term with the aid of an enormous investment in up-skilling the existing workforce. This seems wildly unlikely in a climate in which the government is rolling back on public sector programs, and businesses are relying on high staff turnover with little opportunity for in-work training.
Enter that two-year work permit, which would allow migrant labour to be bussed in temporarily. This might be a boon to employers—after all, a worker with precarious migration status is often a more pliable worker, willing to tolerate low wages or poor in-work conditions. Declaring a whole swathe of the working population ineligible for the support that goes along with permanent residence will also provide an easy way for the government to make cuts. But British workers have little to gain from their colleagues’ insecurity. Currently, migrants are on the frontline of UK fights for better pay and conditions—but if their position becomes too precarious, they’re far less likely to kick up a fuss, with everyone losing out as a result.
“This is a ghost story which the UK population can’t afford to believe”
There’s a beguiling simplicity to the thought that if only we could rout the rot of globalisation, the economy would blossom. Kicking out EU migrants won’t return us to a prelapsarian past of well-paid, stable employment—especially not when the government is doing its utmost to undermine working conditions by ‘slashing red tape’, undoing hard-won union protections, and setting colleagues against one another with xenophobic rhetoric. The ‘wellbeing average UK worker’ is a specter regularly summoned to justify policy decisions which in the end, benefit only bosses and cabinet ministers. It’s a ghost story which the UK population can’t afford to believe.