The Tories are planning a vicious attack on the rights of millions of European Union (EU) migrants living in Britain. A Home Office document leaked last week gave the clearest account of the immigration clampdown they’re cooking up.
EU migrants could be fingerprinted at the border, and forced to carry a residency permit. This will be valid for just two years—five for migrants deemed highly skilled—denying any sense of a secure future. Other proposals deny the right to a family life, and give bosses the powers of border guards over their employees.
Sunderland maths teacher Valerija Peles came from Croatia before it joined the EU in 2013. She has already experienced the nasty immigration rules Britain imposes on non-EU migrants and could soon extend to EU migrants too.
“The rules are so harsh—and so complicated, especially for people who don’t speak English,” she told Socialist Worker. “If I went abroad with the school it was embarrassing—the children would go through one queue, I’d go through another to give my fingerprints.”
Now the proposals could bring that nightmare to millions more.
Claudia Robinson is a care worker in Derbyshire, supporting people with learning difficulties. “I came here from Germany six years ago to get married,” she said. “Under the new rules I wouldn’t have had that possibility.”
EU nationals would need to earn at least £18,600 a year to be allowed to bring their partner to Britain. Other relatives will be banned, except for dependants including children aged under 18.
The Home Office paper suggests several ways EU migrants could be sent to the back of the queue for jobs.
One is the use of a work visa—something Valerija has already experienced. Valerija said, “My right to stay was tied to the job, I couldn’t change jobs. And I knew that if for any reason I lost the job, there was a stamp in my passport saying I couldn’t claim benefits.”
Such measures make migrant workers more dependent on their bosses—and more vulnerable. TUC union federation general secretary Frances O’Grady warned that the Tories’ proposals “would create an underground economy, encouraging bad bosses to exploit migrants”.
Rafel Sanchis Palop, a London hotel worker and Unite union rep, told Socialist Worker that harsher immigration controls make it harder to organise.
“In general, the people who join the union are people who have their papers,” he said. “People who are undocumented are less likely to join the union—often, I think, because they are scared.”
The loudest voices in the media denouncing the Tories’ proposals were bosses complaining about possible labour shortages.
Agriculture, manufacturing, construction and hospitality all depend on large numbers of EU migrants—particularly in the lower grades. So do health and education.
EU nationals make up 7 percent of the workforce in Britain, according to official figures. They include 11 percent of manufacturing workers and 30 percent of food processing workers.
Hotel bosses say about 75 percent of waiters, 25 percent of chefs and 37 percent of housekeepers are from EU countries. But these bosses are no allies of anti-racists.
“These companies are based on cheap labour,” Rafel explained. “People don’t know their rights and don’t speak English, and companies take advantage of that.”
And bosses’ griping—echoed by liberals and some of the Labour right—doesn’t help. It lends credence to the idea that immigration is bad for workers who are already here.
But it’s simply a lie to blame immigration for unemployment or low pay. Trying to defend the interests of some workers by attacking others is always a disaster.
Union activists like Rafel try to organise low-paid migrants to improve conditions. One recent success has been the Fair Tips campaign, forcing high profile restaurants and hotels to stop pilfering tips.
Gains like this help all workers. Rafel said, “There is much to do. But we all know workers are stronger when they are united.
“The government is using its proposals partly to put pressure on the EU, but at the same time it wants to divide us.”
Many in Labour are rightly wary of being seen to oppose Brexit. But the issues are separate.
Victor Cosmin from Romania works as a merchandiser in London—taking phone companies’ wares to shops and putting up their posters.
He told Socialist Worker, “Personally, I am a socialist and I support Brexit. To get even social democratic change you need to be free from the influence of the European Commission.
“But there is a lot of fear among immigrants right now—and with the Tories there is a lot to be afraid of.”
Some unions have come out in defence of free movement for EU migrants. The rest need to get off the fence. Rather than buy into the Tories’ divide and rule the workers’ movement must say clearly—“an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Myth of ‘unskilled’ workers driving down wages
Right wing Labour MP Frank Field claimed limiting EU immigration “would have given employment opportunities to huge swathes of younger unemployed or casual workers.”
That’s news to Claudia. “I work 50 to 60 hours a week because they can’t find the staff to cover all the shifts,” she said. Without migrants, “There would be too much work, and a ‘British worker’ wouldn’t necessarily come along to do it.”
The Tories try to appease bosses and racists by distinguishing between skilled and unskilled migrants.
Valerija was only allowed into Britain to meet a national shortage of maths teachers. She said, “I don’t like the fact that Britain wants to take all these super-skilled workers it needs while keeping others out.”
The distinction between skilled and unskilled workers isn’t always clear cut. It’s easy for someone on a high wage to assume that someone paid less is less capable. It can be a lot harder to do their job.
Claudia said, “I came into this country unskilled, but I’ve gained skills since arriving. I’d never worked in care before—I was a train guard in Germany. Now I’ve done my NVQ-2 qualification and am working on my NVQ-3. But I’m still on a very low wage—just £7.20 an hour.”
What about those workers who are unskilled? Victor said, “I do an unskilled job. But what the Tories forget is that unskilled workers who come here pay taxes. We gave them the money they gave the Democratic Unionist Party.”
Many migrants in low paid jobs resent the idea that they are taking them from other workers. Victor said, “It’s not that employers have a bias in favour of immigrants. Quite the opposite.
“There are many employers who discriminate, and are more likely to give a British person the job if they apply.”
Claudia agreed, “I do have a lot of British colleagues. But the reality is that they are always short of care staff.”
So restrictions on migrants would not open up jobs for anyone else. The argument then goes that without migrants ready to work on the cheap, bosses would pay more. This is a naive view of a class of ruthless exploiters.
Bosses will pay as little as they can get away with—and that is not the fault of migrant workers.
In the 1950s and 1960s bosses and the government actively recruited migrant workers to work in Britian—and wages rose.
Former Lib Dem minister Vince Cable revealed this week that Theresa May suppressed nine reports on immigration when she was home secretary. That’s because the reports found that immigration had little impact on wages and jobs.
A number of recent inspirational strikes that are important for all wokrers—McDonald’s, Serco health in London, Soas cleaners—involved workforces where migrants are a majority or a large minority.
EU migrants earn on average £3 an hour less than British born workers. But this mostly reflects the fact that they tend to be in low paid jobs, not that they get less for doing the same job.
In some cases they can be desperate enough to take pay and conditions that “only immigrants would put up with,” as Victor put it. Immigration controls would make this worse, not better.
The goal of migrant-bashing politicians isn’t to fill any gap their policies create by making bosses pay more—but by getting British-born workers to accept less.
The Tories set the “National Living Wage” too low to live on. They cap the pay of five million public sector workers, with huge knock-on effects.
Their welfare reforms are designed to create enough stigma and fear around unemployment to terrorise people into taking whatever is on offer. The only antidote is workers’ resistance—something immigration controls divide and weaken.