Cracking down on migrants or on exploitation?
The Home Office Immigration Minister James Brokenshire MP (who, lest we forget, replaced Mark Harper MP in the role after Harper was exposed as having employed an ‘illegal immigrant’ as his cleaner) has announced a crackdown on those who employ illegal immigrants, promising Border Force raids on employers suspected of the practice. He said that the Government believed that employers seeking to undercut existing workers by exploiting those without a legal right to employment were probably also breaching health and safety laws and dodging their tax and national insurance liabilities. It’s not clear if he was talking about Mark Harper, who after a remarkably swift rehabilitation, is now Chief Whip.
There’s obviously some truth in this: the TUC also believes that bad employers are unlikely to only be bad in one area of their activities. But there are two key flaws in the Government’s thinking.
First, if the main problem is bad employers, then the immigration status of their employees is not the first thing you’d look at (the FBI famously eventually ran gangster Al Capone to ground for cheating on his tax returns). You’d expect a government keen to address bad employment practices to be beefing up the Health and Safety Executive, extending the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, or helping trade unions to root out bad practice. Since the current Government isn’t doing any of that, we’re sceptical that they mean what they say about bad employers.
Second, the reason checking immigration status is not the first thing you’d check is because understanding the laws on employing people who are not legally entitled to work in the UK is notoriously difficult, because that entitlement isn’t a simple matter. Some people are legally entitled to work a certain number of hours (eg students whose work shouldn’t interfere with their studies) but that can mean, in the flexible workplace of today, that they are legal one week, and ‘illegal’ the next. The Government’s desperate attempt to co-opt all sorts of people into the Border Force (like landlords, educationalists or doctors) just leads to more people who decide to avoid the problem by not employing people who look or sound as if their immigration status might be in doubt – which tends to mean people with foreign sounding names, even people who were born here, let alone European citizens perfectly entitled to work in the UK.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said that
“If the government really wants to tackle the issue of increasing migration, they must work with unions, employers and our European partners to address exploitation and undercutting across the board, and tackle bad bosses as well as people traffickers.”
We’re not holding our breath, sadly.