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Ending free movement won't stop exploitation. Workers' rights will

Britain should not aspire to be Qatar. 

Brexit risks creating an "undercutting free-for-all" in the British economy. That’s the key finding of our new report, Brexit and Immigration: Prioritising the Rights of All Workers. It should alarm all Labour members and supporters. Motions on Brexit and free movement may not have been heard, but as the party meets in Brighton we must remember that migrant workers with less rights will be more vulnerable to super exploitation. Creating a second-class migrant workforce risks compounding the insecurities that all workers face in Britain.

The system of free movement is poorly understood. It provides EU citizens with a series of conditional rights they have when living in other EU countries, particularly the right to work and study. EU citizens activating these "treaty rights" cannot be discriminated against in the labour market and should not be treated differently by employers on the grounds of their nationality.

Unfortunately, workers’ rights in the UK often only observe minimum EU standards. Trade unions face some of the most restrictive laws of any democracy in the world. Decades of outsourcing and the creation of hyper "flexible" labour markets - most recently in the so-called "gig economy" - have played workers off against one another. Pyramids of outsourced operations, with companies competing over delivering the work for the lowest price, have pushed down the pay and conditions in many sectors.

These changes are all too often associated with migration. But they arise from a lack of robust workers’ rights, combined with a broken free market economic model.

When post-Brexit immigration policy is discussed, employer sponsorship of visas and the use of time-limited work permits are repeatedly raised. In fact, there is an unused visa category of the points-based system the UK government uses for non-EEA (European Economic Area) workers, which already contains these provisions. On this suspended visa category, workers can only come into the country under the sponsorship of a vetted employer or agent, and have no right to move work once they arrive. The employer is responsible for their accommodation and for ensuring they are returned to their home country when the visa expires. These conditions may well be in breach of the "right to a free choice of employment" protected in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and are in any case a recipe for a second-class migrant workforce suffering super-exploitation.

We show in the report how these types of visa system have a terrible track record. They empower unscrupulous employers and drive down pay and conditions. The ultimate logic is the appalling conditions faced by workers building the football stadiums for the Qatar World Cup. There, a lack of political rights gives extraordinary powers to contractors (the confiscation of passports and the denial of "exit permits" for those seeking their old life are the norm). In the UK, workers coming into the country on the Domestic Workers in a Private Household Visa are also hugely dependent on their sponsors - and the result can be exploitation and slavery.

Britain is now at risk of creating a "worst of both worlds" system: an already poorly regulated, exploitative labour market combined with reducing the rights of migrant workers to such a degree that it would inevitably force down conditions faced by all.

The alternative to these bad choices already exists. It's called free movement+ (the plus refers to a new deal prioritising the rights of all workers). The aim is to improve the rights of workers whatever their nationality. By establishing a legal position for trade union negotiated agreements in key sectors, prioritising those with large numbers of migrant and low paid workers, we can ensure a minimum rate for the job is upheld no matter where the worker has come from. Raising the minimum wage, banning zero hours contracts, establishing a minister of labour to reign in unscrupulous employers, could also form part of this new agenda. Many of these ideas are already in Labour’s dramatically popular 2017 election manifesto. As Tory Brexit lurches from crisis to crisis now is the time for the party to adopt a bold new approach. Free movement+ is the only way to prioritise the rights of all workers.




Luke Cooper is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Anglia Ruskin University and the co-author of Brexit and Immigration: Prioritising the Rights of All Workers.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.