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The CBI has no answers to the problems around immigration and skills

ON August 9 this year the employers’ organisation the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) issued its report entitled Open and Controlled — Recommendations for a New Approach to Immigration.

The report, based on commentary from its membership organisation, focused entirely on the impact of Britain leaving the EU and interestingly made the point in opening that EU workers should not be subject to the burdensome Non-EU Visa Rules.

In other words, the headline does not fit the story. First, it conflates immigration and work — something that has been a feature since Tony Blair’s Immigration Acts — and, as importantly, it is a case of special pleading for the EU nations, saying nothing at all about the rest of the world.

We know that Non-EU Visa Rules are highly restrictive and should be made less onerous. These rules have been significantly tightened since Britain joined the EU as successive governments have focused on controlling numbers of people entering Britain. 

The consequences of these decisions have been widely reported, most recently with refusals of non-EU citizens to enter Britain to perform at Womad and participate in the Edinburgh Festival. 

The CBI therefore wishes to enshrine this potentially racist unequal treatment into future law, and would be better placed in making the logical case to review and reduce the burden of visa processes.

The main arguments made in the CBI report are economic benefit, skills, and ability to move staff across the EU to protect supply chains.

It stresses the need to drop net migration targets, replacing these with a policy based on contributions; reforming the earnings rules; negotiating simple travel arrangements; restricting EU citizens’ ability to stay for three months unless they can prove they are working, studying or self-sufficient; and guaranteeing the rights of existing EU citizens.

Interestingly it says the tone of the immigration debate must be altered. 

The Tory government response was as expected — it will come forward with a changed immigration policy but it is still committed to reducing net migration. 

Labour’s policy too appears to be in a development stage, which I believe is an inadequate response. But from this we can see that the Tory government is now in conflict with the CBI.

Likewise the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) stated on August 13 that companies were in supply shock as fewer EU citizens come to Britain and companies struggle to fill vacancies. 

Shock horror, many companies were having to increase wages. This is surely a good thing, given that wage growth is low and in many sectors, including the one the government controls, the public sector, is rising at a level below the rate of inflation.

The CIPD tells us that the numbers of people moving from the EU to Britain has fallen to its lowest level since 2013 and the number of people applying for a low-skill vacancy has fallen from 24 to 20, and for medium-skilled 19 to 10. Hardly catastrophic and hardly something that can be called a shock — unless employers suddenly realised they needed to improve wages.

The wish for people to work in Britain has many drivers — family and cultural links will be two of them. As will be the impression of how the country welcomes immigrants. 

The recent actions against the Windrush generation sent a clear negative message and one that has yet to be resolved. 
People are being sacked due to the inadequate nature of Britain’s nationality laws — laws that have been changed frequently as governments reacted to right-wing headlines. 

One documented case of a person who entered Britain in 1966 and worked as a dental assistant still awaits a decision. This person currently lives off handouts. 

Neither the CIPD nor CBI have anything to say about people who are being sacked.

And of course Boris Johnson’s behaviour is often racist and portrays the world through a white man’s lens. 

Many EU citizens will see this and say: forget it. Most people look for jobs elsewhere for economic reasons — this was as true in the sit-com Auf Wiedersehen Pet as it is today. 

It is as true as when Norman Tebbit stated that people should “get on their bikes” while his government destroyed British jobs and industry and built up the financial sector.

The EU’s much-vaunted free movement is limited within EU borders and even those countries not in Schengen are restricted. 

Capitalism requires there to be a body of labour that sells its labour power. Such people are required to move where the work is, and capitalists will look to maximise profits by moving work around to the cheapest areas — low tax, highly supported areas. 

The impact of this is devastating on areas where people move from. In recent years, eastern Europe has seen a depopulation of its skilled and young workforce. 

It cannot be right for a rich country like Britain to rely on labour from other nations that have paid to train their people in the first place. It is fundamentally short-term and precarious.

Rather, Britain must spend much more on skills development. Yes, get rid of targets and, yes, welcome students but profitable companies must develop workforces for the future, as should governments.

This means two simple propositions — spending more of the money generated from profits on skills and retention and scrapping austerity, spending more on the public sector.

Second, both the CBI and CIPD could do more to combat precarious employment in their own affiliate companies — there are still nearly one million workers on zero-hours contracts. Many others are employed on contracts of less than 30 hours per week. 

Employment law must be changed to give people employment rights from day one. Trade unions must be allowed to collectively bargain. Fragmented employment and outsourcing must be curtailed.

Within the agricultural sector — too easily dominated by the NFU and big business — a new approach to seasonal work could be agreed with reintroduced Agricultural Wages Boards.

Yet people not born in Britain must have the ability to more easily become British citizens.

And finally, the Immigration Acts must be done away with and replaced with a new system based on a non EU-centric view.

Tony Conway is a member of the Communist Party executive committee.


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