Migrants want to learn English: why isn't the government investing to help them do so?

“If you're not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut," said George Osborne during the Spending Review. ESOL teacher Eli Davies explains that migrants are keen to learn English, but unless we have properly funded ESOL provision across the b

There was a predictable slew of tough-talking on benefits in George Osborne’s Spending Review last week. As well as the announcement that JSA claimants will have to wait seven days before they can sign on and there was further tough talk on migrants who don’t speak English. “If you're not prepared to learn English,” Osborne said, “your benefits will be cut."

It has already been pointed out in several places that this is misleading nonsense, grounded in the pernicious myth that immigrants don’t want to learn English. I have worked as an ESOL teacher for nearly ten years and am part of the national Action for ESOL campaign, which campaigns against cuts to the subject. I and my colleagues have encountered no reluctance to learn among the migrant population: every year our courses are oversubscribed and students themselves frequently ask for more provision, as well as bringing along their equally keen friends or relatives to classes.

To some degree migrants are an easy target for the government. In times of austerity they are often the first vulnerable group to have access to services removed and there is no doubt that immigrants have already borne the brunt of much of the government’s cuts. Over the last 15 or so years the drip-drip feed of the ‘immigrant = scrounger’ narrative from the mainstream press - and shamelessly pandered to by politicians - has created a climate in which such cuts go unchallenged or unnoticed. (The latest example of this is Jeremy Hunt’s racist political point-scoring over so-called “health tourism” in the NHS).

Many ESOL learners are speaking out against these cuts. In 2010 the government announced that students on benefits would have to pay up to £1,000 for an ESOL course, and Action for ESOL began a year-long campaign against the move. Our campaign included several big student-led actions, including rallies, demonstrations and college walk-outs and eventually resulted in a government u-turn. We have been campaigning on further planned cuts and in May organised a lobby of parliament and a packed-out parliamentary meeting, at which many students spoke passionately about the importance of ESOL. None of this points to a lack of willingness to learn English - or indeed to speak up - and we are extremely concerned about the government’s dangerous scapegoating. It is the height of hypocrisy to slam immigrants for failing to integrate and learn English on the one hand, then take away their means to do so on the other.

We are already facing year-on-year government cuts to ESOL and Further Education and there is a real worry among ESOL professionals about the impact of Osborne’s proposals on our sector. Tying English classes to benefits could well mean more involvement for private sector contractors like A4e and an increase in short "quick fix" courses, taught by unqualified and underpaid teachers. Such providers often impose unhelpful and inappropriate targets that have less to do with long-term progression and more to do with making a profit. Making ESOL classes mandatory is punitive and dangerous; like many of the government’s welfare policies, it strips away the agency of the individuals concerned and underestimates the complex realities of people’s lives.

What we really need is properly funded ESOL provision across the board. Understandably there have been moves by some organisations to work around funding cuts by looking for cheaper options, such as online provision, but it is crucial that any such measure runs in conjunction with longer-term courses taught by trained professionals. ESOL teachers - like all teachers - encounter many complex needs on a daily basis: learners may have basic literacy needs, learning difficulties or issues resulting from trauma in their country, and qualified and well-supported professionals are essential. Language-learning is a complicated business but it is vital that we invest in it. Migrants want to learn English. The government should provide the long term, properly funded means to do it. 

Eli Davies is a London-based teacher and writer

There are already year-on-year government cuts to ESOL and Further Education. Photograph: Getty Images
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.