Ed Miliband speaking at TUC Congress in 2013
Migration: putting tackling exploitation first
Labour leader Ed Miliband announced today that he wants to address a concern that unions have been raising about migration: its use by unscrupulous employers (and, indeed, any employer who thinks they can get away with it) to cut their labour costs by undermining previous terms and conditions. The TUC has been calling for migrants to be treated equally with the existing workforce to eradicate exploitation and prevent undercutting for years. Labour’s announcement responds to those people who express concerns about the interplay of unregulated markets and migration, but who don’t think that rejecting free movement of workers or sending migrants back would be feasible, even if it was a good idea.
The method chosen by Labour to control exploitation, making undercutting one of the pieces of evidence (note that he didn’t say he would make undercutting itself illegal) that would lead to conviction under a new law similar to Article 233 of the German criminal code (see footnote below) into UK law, is an interesting one. That article covers trafficked workers and forced labour, and Labour are implicitly suggesting a widening of the definition in UK law of forced labour. Wider, but certainly still consistent with judicial principles and the jurisprudence of the International Labour Organisation. It’s interesting that while Labour apply such principles to exploitation of migrant workers, the Government is introducing a Modern Slavery Bill that similarly applies ILO concepts of forced labour, and the ILO itself adopted a new Protocol on forced labour at its 2014 conference. 175 years after the formation of the abolitionist group now known as Anti-Slavery International, forced labour is certainly a lot higher up the political agenda.
Some people have expressed concerns about the use of the term undercutting, either because they say it isn’t actually occurring, or because they are worried that the term implies division in working class communities. These are concerns worth addressing, but the TUC doesn’t believe they make Labour’s announcement invalid. Overall, it is true that terms and conditions have not been reduced by migration, but by Government policy since the global financial crisis began (well after the latest increase in migration took place). But averages don’t tell the whole story, and there are lots of cases where employers have directly attempted to undermine wages by bringing in workers from poorer parts of the EU – such as the Lindsey oil refinery dispute under the last government. The EU Posted Workers Directive is designed to stop that undercutting, but in countries like the UK where collective bargaining agreements have no legal force, that means that the national minimum wage is the only defence against undercutting.
As for the word implying division, well that boat has sailed. The actions of unscrupulous employers and politicians seeking to exploit popular concerns have already created that division, and cracking down on exploitation is precisely the best way to overcome it. This announcement, unlike announcements on benefits or border controls, puts the emphasis squarely on the actions of employers, rather than the migrant workers themselves.
So some employers, of course, have adopted a “who, me?” defence, with their allies claiming that this policy means Labour is anti-business. Cracking down on bad bosses is precisely the opposite, of course, because tackling unscrupulous behaviour removes that worst offenders and improves the image of those employers who don’t practice such exploitation, while also removing unfair competition based on that exploitation. Good employers have nothing to fear from Ed Miliband’s latest announcement, any more than they did from the Modern Slavery Bill (where similar voices tried to persuade the Government to protect progressive employers from legislation they actually wanted to see made tougher!)
The main people who would gain from the latest policy, of course, are ordinary workers, whether migrant or not. As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said today:
“This government’s opposition to basic rights at work, and unwillingness to enforce those that exist, has helped make the UK the exploitation capital of Europe. We welcome these proposals to crack down on those who use migrant workers to undermine the existing workforce. Free movement of workers shouldn’t let unscrupulous employers get something for nothing. Everyone should be paid a decent wage for doing a decent job.”
Footnote: the key passage of Article 233 of the German criminal code reads as follows, but it’s worth reading Articles 232 and 233a as well:
Human trafficking for the purpose of work exploitation
(1) Whosoever exploits another person’s predicament or helplessness arising from being in a foreign country to subject them to slavery, servitude or bonded labour, or makes him work for him or a third person under working conditions that are in clear discrepancy to those of other workers performing the same or a similar activity, shall be liable to imprisonment from six months to ten years. Whosoever subjects a person under twenty-one years of age to slavery, servitude or bonded labour or makes him work as mentioned in the 1st sentence above shall incur the same penalty.
(2) The attempt shall be punishable.