Should business speak up for immigration?
There’s an interesting article by Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times today, arguing that business organisations should be arguing the case more forcefully in favour of immigration, because of the economic benefits it produces. They, he argues, are the main beneficiaries, and they should be offering a counterweight to the relentless anti-immigrant rhetoric of tabloids, certain think-tanks and increasing numbers of politicians (for whom “we should end the silence on immigration and have an open debate …” is now as much of a cliche and a smokescreen as “I’m not a racist, but ….” used to be). The TUC has, of course, a proud record in recent years of speaking up for rights for migrants, equal treatment at the workplace, and against racism. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, we were almost alone in arguing for the workers of those two countries to have freedom of movement to the UK. So why don’t business organisations do likewise?
First, it’s worth knowing that, in private, business leaders are indeed in favour of freedom of movement. Business for New Europe have actually leapt off the fence in its defence. But the main business organisations seem unwilling to enter the fray publicly, for several reasons, chief of which are, I think, three:
1. they don’t want to cop the blame for the downsides of migration (some of their own making, such as undercutting of the terms and conditions of people already here) – they DID support the initial opening of the UK labour market when the original eastern european countries joined the EU, but were scared by public hostility (which they felt could have been turned on them, precisely as the beneficiaries) that in part resulted from much higher numbers of migrants than expected;
2. they don’t want to be forced to confront the logic of that first point, which is that along with economically-driven migration you need social policies like more public housing, expanding education and health provision, and rights at work that prevent migrants working for less (here’s where the TUC has fewer problems: we can take the moral high-ground in opposing exploitation, and defend our existing members by opposing undercutting at the same time); and
3. they think they can get the skilled migrant labour they need without opposing the government’s restriction on overall numbers, by arguing behind-the-scenes for loopholes and get outs and so on – concessions they might not get if they were more openly hostile. And to be honest, that strategy seems to be working: initial Government pronouncements on their cap on migration seemed to contain exactly the loopholes many businesses required, and the focus has now turned onto language schools (you know, people of whom it might be said “they come over here, they learn our language….”), rather than migrant workers and university entrants.