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A Step Forward: Migrant Workers and the Right to Strike

An immigration system based on “economic needs” risks entrenching exploitation

THIS month, in the face of public pressure, Sajid Javid gave much needed clarity that immigration rules would not be used to undermine migrant workers’ right to strike (for those on tier-two visas).

This is an important step forward, which shows that campaigning can get results — but a lot of work is still needed to prevent immigration rules from undermining workers’ rights.

The Home Secretary was responding to pressure from thousands of War on Want supporters and University and College Union members who had written to their MPs. This shows that together we can push for an immigration system that respects migrants’ rights.

Without that clarification, when university staff went on strike earlier this year, some people were afraid that taking action might be used to deny them the right to remain in Britain.

It was unclear whether days of strike action would count towards the 20-day annual limit on unpaid leave for workers on tier two visas, for those outside the European Economic Area with a skilled job in Britian. Employers were expected to withdraw their sponsorship from any worker who exceeded the limit, and their right to remain could have been curtailed as a result.

While this “clarification” is welcome, it is only one small step in the right direction. The immigration system continues to undermine workers’ rights, not least where workers’ right to remain is dependent on their employer.

This dependence creates a significant imbalance of power between workers and employers. Workers’ rights should not be dependent on immigration status.

On June 30, Mustafa Dawood, a young Sudanese man, died during an immigration raid on the car wash where he was working. This was a tragic reminder of how much needs to be done to guarantee the right to work for all.

Mustafa was an asylum-seeker. Asylum-seekers are routinely denied the right to work, often leaving them in dire poverty. Ireland recently loosened its rules to allow some asylum-seekers to apply for the right to work. Britain should go further and give all asylum-seekers the right to work.

Without the right to work, migrant workers are often afraid to report exploitation to labour rights enforcement bodies for fear they’ll be arrested, detained, deported and treated as criminals.

Work is an essential way of allowing people to provide for their own basic needs, and should never be a crime. Labour rights enforcement bodies should enforce labour rights for all workers.

A firewall between labour rights bodies — such as HMRC’s national minimum wage enforcement team, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and the Health and Safety Executive — and immigration law enforcement is needed so all workers can report abuse without fear of arrest.

With Brexit, many more workers will be subject to British immigration controls, as workers from the EU 27 will lose rights based upon EU rules on the free movement of labour. The current system needs more than tweaks and clarifications — it is not fit for purpose and needs drastic change.

While the consequences of Brexit become clearer, employers from many sectors are lobbying hard to ensure they can continue to recruit migrant workers, but their concern does not extend to workers’ rights.

An immigration system based solely on “economic needs” risks restricting migrant workers’ rights so they can be more easily exploited. This would entrench a two-tier workforce where different groups of workers have different sets of rights. Only by protecting equal social and labour rights for all workers can we prevent a race to the bottom that undermines the rights for everyone.

Despite the additional barriers faced, migrant and precarious workers are winning victories that show it’s possible to challenge rising insecurity and low pay.

Workers organised into trade unions are successfully tackling precarious work, outsourcing and privatisation: the real drivers of low pay and insecurity in the British labour market.

Despite facing stigmatisation by media that too often blames them for low pay and insecurity at work, they are standing up for themselves and winning.

Their struggles tell an important story about how endemic low pay and insecurity can be overcome. This is why we must stand with migrant workers and campaign to ensure all workers have their labour and social rights respected, regardless of immigration status. Join us.

Owen Espley is senior economic justice campaigner at War on Want.

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