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THIS week will see the second reading of the Tory government’s latest Immigration Bill. It is extremely short.
But the white paper it is meant to enact represents one of the most serious threats to all workers for decades.
The TUC and others have already raised concerns that this Bill risks limiting the rights of existing EU workers in the UK — amounting to literally millions of people — and more than a million UK citizens in the EU. It will also severely increase the rates of exploitation in work.
The risk of super-exploitation will be built into the legal system. The new Immigration Bill introduces an entirely new work visa of just 12 months, for those who Tory ministers persist in calling “low-skilled” workers, who are in reality underpaid workers.
The government’s intention, as shown in its white paper, is not to severely limit or even substantially curb the flow of migrants. On the contrary, just like the never-met “net migration target of under 100,000 people a year,” the government’s policy amounts to a permanent campaign against migration and migrants as a scapegoat for the effects of their own austerity policy.
The new system will no doubt be accompanied by lots of blood-curdling rhetoric about migrants, while at the same time encouraging just as many migrants to come, if not more.
One of the white paper’s central promises is that employers will be able to recruit all the “low-skilled” workers they need.
The euphemism used is preserving “access” for business, which is mentioned 77 times in the white paper.
The real difference is that under the new scheme, many migrant workers who come here will in effect have no rights — to employment protection, health and safety, sickness pay, maternity leave and so on — simply because they will be temporary workers and under threat of deportation in 12 months’ time.
The suspicion is that this time limit was itself chosen because anyone here for under one year does not officially count as a long-term migrant in the data.
These workers will be almost impossible to organise, or find it very difficult to organise themselves.
They will have no legal right to bring family members here, in breach of the UN’s right to a family life. They will be prey to the most unscrupulous employers.
It is widely known that some employers exploit overseas workers either because they are unaware of their rights or may not have the correct papers.
Institutionalising that super-exploitation through immigration law potentially creates an entire cohort of low-paid, minimal rights overseas workers.
If anyone overstays they can be forced by the worst employers to go “off the books,” with no National Insurance paid, no entitlement to sick or holiday pay and potentially below minimum wage rates.
The system is designed to attract the most desperate workers in the first place, workers who know in advance they will have to leave after 12 months, who will be separated from their families, and who are low paid.
The Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes seems unsure whether employers will be asked to police this system, having given two entirely contradictory replies to this question in Parliament.
But anything which gives this power, effectively delegating the right to deport to bad employers, is a recipe for workplace exploitation of the worst kind.
It runs counter to the government’s own claims to be tacking all forms of modern slavery.
The risk to the entire workforce of this country, especially those on lower pay, should be clear. The government has discussed setting a visa threshold at £30,000 a year, which is clearly an income threshold not a skills one.
The government insults nurses, social care workers and most other workers by calling them low-skilled, when they are actually underpaid.
Even for those in full-time work, the average pay is still below the suggested £30,000 level.
If it were set at that level, all the first six grades for NHS nurses would be not be included as skilled. High-earning derivatives traders of course will be waved through.
Any worker whose time-limited work visa has lapsed and reports abuses to the authorities could face prison or deportation.
This in turn could have a negative impact on the pay and conditions of all workers in all the sectors of the economy, or all grades earning below £30,000.
The terrible effects of zero-hours contracts on the wider workforce could pale into insignificance by comparison.
There is an argument for some strictly regulated short-term work contracts, to deal with seasonal work such as agriculture.
The Tories scrapped the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in 2013. The decline in seasonal pay and conditions in agriculture since means employers have struggled to employ sufficient workers in subsequent years.
Crops have been left to rot. Labour is committed to reintroducing the scheme. If there are other sectors, such as hospitality that also have seasonal spikes, we will listen.
But there are seasonal workers too, such as students, and in all cases proper pay and conditions are required, and will be enforced by a Labour government.
The Tories are in a terrible mess on Brexit. Unwilling to confront real choices rather than fantasies, they have even begun to discuss a general election. Good. What we need is a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
But we should also be clear. Despite their ridiculous claims, the Tories will never be the party of the workers.
They will boast their Immigration Bill helps workers. This is entirely false. Their real agenda is an immigration system which intensifies the exploitation of migrant workers, and lowers pay and conditions for all.
Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.
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