Migration: things must be bad when the TUC and the Adam Smith Institute agree!
Last week, the Prime Minister, and before him, the Home Secretary, made major speeches on immigration. They both claimed to understand ‘the problem’ and be ready to address it. They gave the impression that this is a really new debate, and that they were ready, at last, to take action. Today the Director of the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) hit back in the Financial Times (on a page you have to pay to view, ironically enough) so I thought a TUC comment might provide some balance. However, mostly, we agree with the ASI: immigration policy is too tough already and is set to get worse, whichever party policy you read.
One of the most worrying features of Ministerial statements on migration recently has been the way they ape the language of the far right. As with “British jobs for British workers”, there’s a worry that this is deliberate. So let’s be clear: immigration is not “a problem”, and the political classes have emphatically NOT been ignoring the issue as part of some liberal conspiracy – these are both myths purveyed by the BNP and their ilk. As ASI’s Eamonn Butler points out, immigration laws in the UK are already tight to the point of burdensome on both migrants and their sponsors.
The “problem”, as Eamonn Butler again points out about refugees refused the legal right to work, is that the current approach pushes refugees into illegality and therefore wide open to exploitation. That exploitation is what encourages the view that migrants are undercutting indigenous workers’ terms and conditions. But migrants are doing no such thing. The people who employ them are.
Gordon Brown’s speech included a telling phrase:
“If you are working for a multinational company in a growing sector in a big city then a more diverse workforce from across the world is likely to seem like an exciting source of new ideas – and it is. If you work in a sector where wages are falling or an area where jobs are scarce, immigration will feel very different for you, even if you believe that immigration is good for overall employment and growth.”
The difference between these two cases is nothing to do with the migrant worker – it’s to do with what unscrupulous employers (or even employers who have scruples which are themselves undermined by their less moral competitors) are using those migrants for: cheap labour.
The solution is to control cheap labour, not migration. The national minimum wage, to the extent that it is adequately enforced, has created at least some sort of floor, and probably explains why we haven’t seen the “one euro an hour” job as they did in Germany. It also probably explains why the British public has, on balance, been more willing to accept East European migration than the Germans.
But migration is the symptom of a predominantly deregulated labour market, not the cause, and if Labour or Conservative politicians (as the ASI point out, their policies are just as tough sounding, with the extra insanity of a quota system on top) want to address the ‘problem’ they need to address the cause, which is poverty pay and insecure employment. There, however, the ASI may part company with us. Sigh – the feeling of unity was all too fleeting.