Combating workplace exploitation or exploiting anti-immigration sentiments?
You’d think that the TUC would welcome a Coalition Minister announcing action against the “unscrupulous employers who exploit” migrant workers. But then you might just possibly be a bit suspicious about what the Minister was up to. And so it was today.
Home Office Minister Mark Harper announced this afternoon that the Government would consult on doubling civil penalties for people who employ migrants who are legally not allowed to work in the UK (what he called “illegal working”). The maximum fine could increase from £10k to £20k for each breach. He claimed that this would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to work, part of a general Government crackdown on access to benefits, health services and housing. He said it would benefit legitimate businesses by preventing undercutting, and make the exploitation of migrant workers less likely.
The TUC’s cynicism about this claim rests on two points. The first and most obvious is that if the Government wanted to crack down on rogue employers exploiting their workers, it might raise the maximum civil penalty for failing to pay the minimum wage from £5k, rather than raising the penalty for illegal working to four times that level!
Our other concern is that the measure has always carried the risk of turning employers into border police, and giving unscrupulous employers an extra tool with which to exploit a vulnerable group. Here’s how it works: a bad employer gives jobs to people whose status is ‘questionable’ (remember that some people become ‘illegal workers’ by working two or three more hours than their visa allows, having entered the country entirely legally.) He pays these workers a pittance, and treats them like dirt. When they complain, he is shocked to ‘discover’ that they are illegal, and turns them in to the authorities. They even get a discount on the fine!
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady commented:
“This would be good news if the Government was actually intending to crack down on exploitation of vulnerable workers. But proposing a civil penalty for illegal working that is four times higher than the fine for not paying the minimum wage is hardly the most effective way to crack down on rogue bosses. This smacks more of dog-whistle politics than a serious attempt to drive out ill-treatment and the under-cutting of law-abiding employers.”
Despite our cynicism, we will be taking part in the Home Office consultation, and if there are elements of the proposals that we can support, we will do so. But if the Government wants to tackle exploitation, we can think of much better ways to do it.