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15 May 2019updated 06 Sep 2021 12:30pm

Whipping up anti-migrant hostility pits working people against each other

The TUC has spoken to working people up and down the country, and they don’t fit the stereotypes that many on the right are so keen to push.

By Frances O'Grady

For too long, Conservative politicians have been playing cynical and dangerous games on immigration. 

Boris Johnson’s big talk about taking back control of immigration was never intended to address working people’s concerns. Neither was Theresa May’s reckless promise to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. They were deliberate attempts to stir up fear and division – and to blame migrant workers for the devastating effects of Tory austerity. 

Well the game is up.

The TUC has spoken to working people up and down the country, and they don’t fit the stereotypes that many on the right are so keen to push. Whatever way they voted in the referendum, most are happy to live and work alongside people from different countries and backgrounds. They value the experiences and skills they bring.

But people have concerns about low pay and public services. And they want everyone to play by the rules – especially dodgy employers who exploit migrant workers to undercut pay and conditions. 

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The government has failed to respond to these concerns. In fact, the Immigration Bill they’ve brought before parliament would make things worse. It’s a nasty and self-defeating piece of legislation that no MP should support.

Under its proposed system of time-limited work permits, low-skilled workers from Europe could only apply for 12-month visas with no right to extend. 

We know from other countries’ experiences that this kind of system is a gift to bad bosses, providing them with a constant supply of exploitable labour. That’s bad for migrant workers, who’ll be more vulnerable to abuse. But it would also drag down pay and conditions across the board, which is bad news for all workers.  

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The real solution is clear. To stamp out undercutting, we need to ensure that all workers, whatever their immigration status, get the same pay and the same rights at work. 

There’s never been anything stopping the UK government from taking action to stop lousy treatment of workers. For starters, they could increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour, ban zero-hours contracts, and introduce an obligation on employers to bargain with unions, which we know is the best way to get pay rising. 

Along with low pay, the pressure on public services is a huge worry for people across the country. But it’s not because of migrants that our schools and hospitals are struggling. It’s because of government underfunding.  

All the Immigration Bill would do is undermine the important contribution migrant workers make to our public services. Staff shortages are already hurting the NHS, and the new system would only make it worse by shutting out qualified and dedicated European workers. 

A government that really wanted to rebuild our public services would follow the TUC’s recommendation and increase public spending to £25 billion, and ensure public sector workers get fair pay rises, in line with inflation. And there’s nothing to stop them taking those steps either, except their own flawed ideology.

We need a different conversation about immigration, one that focuses less on numbers and fear tactics, and more on how we win fair shares and decent conditions for everyone. The Windrush scandal has shown the terrible cost of the Tories’ approach. It’s time for the hostile environment to be abandoned, not extended to cover even more workers. 

Being in the Single Market doesn’t stop us from addressing working people’s concerns about pay, undercutting and public services. In fact, other countries like Norway have used the Single Market’s social rules to prevent undercutting and support union agreements that ensure everyone gets the rate for the job across sectors like construction and cleaning. So anxieties around immigration shouldn’t stop us from having a relationship with the EU that protects jobs and rights.

But when the pressure is on, whipping up anti-migrant hostility has always been the right’s preferred method of keeping control. It pits working people against each other, making it easier for bad bosses to use one group of workers to undercut another. And it distracts from difficult questions about why wealth and power in the UK are so concentrated in the hands of the few. 

What better way for Johnson and friends to stop the blame landing where it really belongs.