From the TUC

Migration stats: low pay/deregulation action needed here & across Europe

25 Aug 2016, by in International

The Office for National Statistics today published figures on the number of migrants in the labour market up to the end of June.  Given that this only captures information from a few days after the referendum, it’s not possible to read from these findings any impact of Britain’s vote to leave the EU on migration rates.

What these statistics do show is a marked increase in the number of workers from Bulgaria an Romania in the UK between April – June.  Romania and Bulgaria were also in the top five countries registering for national insurance numbers in the same period, along with Poland, Italy and Spain.

Low pay pushing workers out

These figures make clear that in countries where wages are low and unemployment is high, people are compelled to come to the UK where unemployment is low and wages are relatively higher. In Southern Europe austerity policies have caused unemployment to sky rocket and pay to fall while in Central and Eastern Europe wage levels are among the lowest in the EU.

The UK is not unique in this respect: Germany has been experiencing similar levels of migration of workers from these countries.

This continues a trend documented by the Migration Observatory where the UK has seen more inward migration from workers from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe than from other countries over the last five years.

New and existing workers facing exploitation

While the UK has benefited from the skills these workers have brought to the country – EU migrants have tended to be qualified to at least A level and often degree level – too many employers have taken advantage of migrant workers, exploiting them and using them as cheap labour to undercut local workers.

Last month the TUC issued a report listing a number of practical actions the government could take now to tackle this exploitation and related concerns about low wages and precarious work that TUC research indicates lies behind many people’s concerns about migration. Our research also shows these concerns were an important factor motivating Leave voters in the EU referendum, although wanting more control over UK laws was a higher concern.

Of course it’s not just migrants facing exploitation at work.  We know young people are used by to undercut older workers who have a higher minimum wage and women who can only work a limited number of hours are often forced to accept lower pay than male workers who are available to work full time.

This is the consequence of employers seeking an ever more ‘flexible’ (ie, precarious) workforce to provide goods and services 24/7 to maximise profits without consideration for the cost to workers down the supply chain.  This can be seen in the shameful practices in SportsDirect exposed by Unite’s campaign and Felicity Lawrence’s expose of the appalling treatment of agricultural workers in East Anglia, to take just two examples.

Business models that require workers to be on precarious contracts and low pay must be challenged. That’s why the TUC’s report called for employers to commit to a process of collective bargaining with unions to negotiate decent treatment for all workers.  The TUC report also calls for stronger labour market regulation with action on zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment and more resources and powers for enforcement bodies.  The UK has one of the lowest number of inspectors to enforce labour rights in Europe – we have roughly 8 inspectors per 100,000 workers, whereas France has 19.

Addressing migration concerns

Labour market regulation and extending the bargaining power of workers are central to tackling  public concerns about migration.

At a roundtable event earlier this year, trade unionists from Germany  noted that migrant workers have not been perceived as a threat in Germany as their trade unions have strong, sector wide collective agreements that provide large parts of the workforce, along with strong enforcement of labour market regulations. This ensures workers are generally paid fairly and have their rights respected (although there are obviously still cases of abuse).

Improving wages and conditions in the labour market also involves employers investing in skills training and committing to creating more decent jobs.

This is needed not only to provide more workers with the opportunity to train to improve their employment prospects but also to stimulate the UK economy which is still lagging behind other G7 countries in productivity levels.  When workers have better qualifications they add more value to the economy, and when they have higher pay they can buy more, stimulating demand.

Challenging precarious work across Europe

What’s needed to protect workers in the UK is also needed across Europe. Workers in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are all too familiar with the deregulated, precarious ‘flexible’ labour markets they experience when they arrive in the UK as they have seen successive governments pursue similar policies in the name of  growth in their countries.

The TUC supports the ETUC’s investment plan for Europe which calls for employers and government to work with unions to invest in public services and quality jobs and  an end to self-defeating austerity.

As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said today:

“It’s important that we work with our European neighbours to address the problems that force people to migrate in search of decent work. Employers and governments across the EU must invest more in jobs and skills so that more workers have the chance of a decent job with a fair wage.”

Without a floor level of protection for workers both within countries and between countries, bad employers will continue to be able to profit by exploiting vulnerable workers, driving down conditions for all.

Unions are organising and recruiting vulnerable workers as only strong unions and collective bargaining can provide this protection.