MAC report – stronger regulation and investment needed to stop migrant worker exploitation
This week the Home Office’s research experts, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) released a report on ‘Migrants in low-skilled work’. Contrary to the exclamatory and highly selective reading of the report found in some parts of the press, the report produced some important arguments against the anti-migrant hostility emanating from elsewhere in the Home Office building.
Let’s look at the key points:
1. Migrants in low-skilled jobs aren’t low skill workers
The report shows that migrants are working in 2 million of the 13 million jobs classified as ‘low skill’ but often these migrants are highly qualified. This supports a 2011 FES study which found that the majority of migrants from Eastern Europe have high school and university-levels of qualifications. The MAC report notes, however, that it is difficult for migrants to get their qualifications recognised in the UK.
The education part of the TUC, Unionlearn has done work to support migrants to have their skills recognised. However, this work is much reduced now due to government spending cuts.
This is one of the reasons migrants end up in jobs where the only qualification required is to put up with gruelling conditions, low pay and precarious contracts in sectors like care, agriculture and constrution. The report notes:
‘many British workers…understandably, will not accept pay rates and conditions that many migrants tolerate’
So much for the ‘work ethic’ employers often cite (and is repeated in the MAC’s report) that make migrants more desirable to employ.
2. Stronger and better funded employment regulation is needed
The report flags up concern at the high incidence of exploitation in the low-skill jobs where migrants are employed, which include – workers paid under the minimum wage, denied holiday or sick pay, forced overtime, dangerous conditions, being denied a contract of employment, having illegal accommodation deductions from pay, and on bogus self-employed contract.
It makes clear that exploitation will only be prevented from undercutting using migrant workers (or any other group of workers – for example, those on agency contracts) through stronger, better funded enforcement, including more funding for National Minimum wage checks. David Metcalf, head of the MAC was has commented:
‘A typical employer can expect a compliance visit just once in every 250 years and a prosecution once in a million years’
As a consequence 1.43 million workers are being paid below the minimum wage, according to the Low Pay Commission’s latest report.
The MAC report echoes the call made by the TUC for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to be extended to construction, cleaning, care and hospitality where vulnerable workers are also concentrated.
3.Trade unions are crucial to protecting workers from exploitation
The report also acknowledges the important role trade unions provide to protect migrants in low-skill jobs from exploitation and enforce labour rights. Trade unions have run a number of successful campaigns organising migrants in precarious jobs and created real improvements in conditions and pay. We need more employers to work with unions to create decent standards for all workers, and more migrants to join a union.
4. It’s the economy, not migration (stupid)
The report shows that lack of job opportunities is created by underinvestment in skills, while lack of services indicates a more targeted approach towards funding areas of high demand is needed.
The MAC shows that the kind of insecure jobs that migrants and British people are facing is a by-product of our labour market model. They note that the increase in zero hours contracts, agency work and self-employed contracts are a result of our labour market that demands ‘more flexible and individualised’ employment. TUC research also shows that job creation is largely taking place in low-skill, low paid industries.
5. Anti-immigrant rhetoric = bad policy
The MAC report alludes to the fact that politicians and the media have created influential arguments that blame migrants for the insecurity this a labour market model creates, stating:
‘…there can often be a gap between public perceptions of migration and the reality. Barriers to accessing and presenting the actual evidence merely serve to perpetuate this misunderstanding and may lead to poor policy choices in the longer term.’
We have seen the current government perpetuate myths of benefit tourism to justify passing policies clearly designed to scapegoat migrants – as with the contemptible Immigration Act that will charge migrants to use the NHS and increase document checks.
6. The missing part of the story: low pay
The MAC report does not focus enough on the problem of low pay – migrants and British people employed in low-skill jobs are the poorest paid people in the country. Even when workers are paid the minimum wage they find it difficult to survive. And these low-pay jobs are fast becoming commonplace. TUC research shows 4 out of 5 new jobs since the recession have been low paid. It is no wonder then that young people face a bleak future when the majority of jobs they are offered after school won’t pay them more that £6.31 an hour, or only £2.68 if they’re an Apprentice. Low pay was central to the strikes of public sector workers yesterday. The TUC campaign this year has also been centred on the simple fact ‘Britain needs a pay rise’.
We need employers to pay workers in low-skill jobs a decent wage and more jobs in higher-paid higher-skilled occupations and employers should recognise the qualification of migrants who have the skills to work in them. We would endorse the call of the MAC report for more training to be provided to local workers have access to higher skilled, higher paid job opportunities too.
Now that it has the MAC report, the government needs to take its recommendations to heart. They must address the problems that lie in the labour market and with exploitative employers.
This would tackle anxieties low-paid insecure workers have about migration head on.