The Government has decided that ‘taking back control’ of the UK’s borders is more important than anything else, more important in particular than working people’s jobs and living standards.
Even if immigration numbers don’t actually come down as a result, the Government is prepared to abandon membership of the EU single market and customs union, even though that would wreak havoc with trade in goods and services.
But there are alternatives, and a new Policy Network and Open Britain pamphlet sets out a series of possible steps that would go a long way to addressing people’s legitimate and justified concerns about immigration without trashing job opportunities and living standards.
The TUC has been arguing for some time that, while immigration does not undermine access to jobs or reduce wages over the economy as a whole, the benefits that migration brings are not shared fairly, and unscrupulous employers have exploited migrants to undercut individual groups of workers, and there have been some impacts on the lower end of the income scale. That has played a big part in underpinning electorate-wide concerns about immigration numbers, but rather than address the real problems that migration brings, the government has resorted to playing the numbers game. As the Brexit white paper said of parliamentary sovereignty, the government is essentially arguing that ‘free movement has not harmed the British economy, but it hasn’t always felt that way.’
Reform or reject: freedom of movement and the single market sets out how the reasonable concerns people have about how migration is managed could be addressed while still remaining in the single market and achieving the tariff-free, frictionless trade in roughly half our goods and services exports that the government claims to be seeking (and which trade unions agree is absolutely vital for working people.) It looks at how other countries in the EU handle migration and draws the sensible conclusion that the most effective way to deal with concerns is to address the underlying problem of a free-for-all labour market that protects neither the migrants themselves nor the existing workforce.
There are other things to do, as the TUC has also argued, like redistributing the extra tax revenues that migration produces through a proper Migration Impacts Fund. That could help build new homes, help schools adjust and lessen pressure on hospitals and GP surgeries. In addition, proper enforcement of anti-exploitation laws like the minimum wage and more resources for the new Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority would help.
But the pamphlet gives pride of place to re-regulating the labour market, which has been the key demand of the trade union movement ever since the EU expanded to cover Eastern Europe in 2004.
In particular, it calls for sectoral Wage and Training Councils, initially in sectors trapped in a low-pay, low-productivity spiral – like construction, social care, hospitality and food processing – with employee and employer representatives and an independent chair, with a remit “to raise skills and productivity, enforce wage standards and offer new employment opportunities to young people whom our school system has failed or whose parents live in areas where decent jobs are sparse.”
The TUC has called for very similar structures to address sectors where collective bargaining is no longer addressing pay inequality and wage stagnation, so we welcome this sort of new thinking.
Our main objective in the Brexit negotiations remains continued compliance with European workplace rights, to ensure a level playing field with the rest of the EU, and the fullest possible access to the single market. These proposals for addressing real concerns about migration are a welcome addition, and go with the grain of the rights-based approach we have supported. There is a way to make Brexit work for working people, but it’s not the route the government seems to prefer.
Owen Tudor is Head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department. This article first appeared on the TUC Touchstone blog. Copyright © 2017 ToUChstone, Trades Union Congress.