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15 December 2014

Miliband turns focus to immigration as Labour continues drive to address weaknesses

Labour leader promises a new law banning employers from undercutting workers' wages and conditions by exploiting migrants. 

By George Eaton

After his speech last week on the deficit, Ed Miliband will deliver one on immigration today, another issue which Labour acknowledges it needs to improve its standing on. The strategic aim is to address the party’s weaknesses now, clearing space to return to its strengths (the NHS and living standards) in the new year. “We’re on the pitch on the deficit and on immigration,” one aide told me. 

After last week’s promise to cut borrowing every year, Miliband will unveil the second of Labour’s election pledges. The speech will be made in Great Yarmouth, one of the party’s 106 target seats and a three-way fight between themselves, the Tories and Ukip. In the Q&A that follows, Miliband will take questions from an audience of undecided voters. 

The headline announcement is a pledge to pass a new law making it a criminal offence for employers to undercut workers’ wages and conditions by exploiting migrants. One strategist described it to me as a “uniquely Labour” approach to the issue with neither the Tories nor Ukip prepared to regulate the labour market in this manner. Miliband will say tomorrow: 

We are serving notice on employers who bring workers here under duress or on false terms and pay them significantly lower wages, with worse terms and conditions.

This new criminal offence will provide protection to everyone. It will help ensure that, when immigrants work here, they do not face exploitation themselves and rogue employers are stopped from undercutting the terms and conditions of everyone else.

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The choice at the next election is whether we change our economy to make it work for everyday people or carry on with an approach which means it works only for a privileged few at the top. We can’t do that unless we deal with the undercutting of wages which is made possible by the exploitation of migrant workers.

Neither the Tories nor Ukip will do any of this.

They turn a blind eye to exploitation and undercutting because it is part of the low skill, low wage, fast-buck economy they think Britain needs to succeed.

 We won’t make false promises on immigration, like David Cameron.

And we won’t offer false solutions like Ukip—leaving the European union would be a disaster for jobs, business and families.

Instead, we will offer clear, credible and concrete solutions which help build a country that works for working people again.

To prove that a criminal offence has been committed, evidence would have to be provided that some abuse of power had occurred and that migrants were employed on significantly different terms to local workers. The proposed new law is modelled on one in Germany, where section 233 of the Criminal Code states that employers may not impose “working conditions that are in clear discrepancy to those of other workers performing the same or a similar activity”. 

The pledge forms part of a broader plan to bring fairness to the labour market by increasing fines for companies that pay below the minimum wage, closing loopholes in agency worker laws that allow firms to undercut directly-employed staff and banning recruitment agencies from hiring only from abroad. It represents the third leg of what one strategist described as the party’s “I-C-E” approach to immigration: Integration (requiring foreign workers to learn English), Contribution (limiting migrants’ access to benefits until they have paid in) and Ending Exploitation. 

With these policies, Miliband, who will remind his audience that he is the son of refugees, believes he has found a way to address the issue that is consistent with his values and principles. He is also determined not to commit David Cameron’s error of making unachievable promises such as reducing net migration to “tens of thousands” a year. Indeed, Cameron’s failure to meet his pledge (having previously invited voters to “kick” the Tories out if he fell short) is one reason why Labour is more confident of fighting on this territory.  

But while most Labour MPs are content with the party’s stance on immigration, some believe Miliband remains overly preoccupied with labour market regulation – a traditional cause of the left – to the detriment of more populist issues such as border control. They would like a clearer message around reducing the number of low-skilled migrants and protecting Britain from foreign criminals (policy issues Yvette Cooper raised yesterday). But Miliband’s speech is an indication that, for both policy and political reasons, he intends to maintain his focus on the economic dimension of immigration.