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Fair pay for migrant workers needs sectoral machinery
When employers take on migrant workers more cheaply than local workers, fair pay is not possible. Unions in construction, agriculture, food, care and service sectors – where migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe which joined the EU in 2004 have been concentrated – report widespread use of migrant labour to undercut wages and conditions.
Migrants are often the most vulnerable workers as they tend to have less knowledge of their rights and have less English to defend themselves.
The new Immigration Minister James Brokenshire’s proposed solution to undercutting in his first major speech was simply to stop the ‘metropolitan elite’ from demanding migrant labour. Unfortunately his case was undermined by the fate of his predecessor, Mark Harper, who took on a migrant worker as a cleaner and fell foul of his own migration rules in the process last month.
But when employers can no longer rely on migrants to work for low pay in their industries, wages on offer often don’t recover. They simply complain that British people don’t have the right ‘work ethic’ to work long hours for low pay delivering pizzas and picking strawberries.
All too many people in Britain are working below the minimum wage as it is. An astonishing 1.43 million workers are being paid below the minimum wage, according to the Low Pay Commission’s latest report.
The government hopes that attacking migrants will reduce working people’s concerns about pay. But those concerns will only be addressed by action on the real causes, like investment in proper enforcement of the national minimum wage and the extension of the Gangmasters Licensing Agency.
The TUC has made clear that real security would be provided by the reinstatement of sectoral machinery to guarantee decent minimum rates of pay. The government’s abolition of the agricultural wages board took away the last of the wage-setting boards which guaranteed fair rates of pay through negotiation with unions. Now agricultural workers face falling pay and worse conditions in return for their hard work.
That approach has been backed by IPPR who suggest in their recent publication on migration that a ‘fair deal’ on migration would involve guaranteeing decent conditions for all workers, proposing that:
“…[in] sectors overly dominated by EU migrants, government, employers and unions would be required to set out a joint strategy to raise wages, job quality and tenure….thereby performing a role similar to that of the sectoral wage boards which used to operate in the agriculture industry.”