From the TUC

Broad alliance must raise the alarm on new Immigration Bill

28 Nov 2015, By

The Immigration Bill is due to go through the Report stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons this Tuesday on 1st December.

The Bill has emerged from the Public Bill Committee – to which the TUC submitted written evidence –  unfortunately still containing measures to criminalise workers, increase exploitation and discrimination in the labour market. Given the fact the Committee was stacked with Tory MPs, it was not surprising that the progressive amendments tabled by Opposition failed to make it into the Bill.

But it is not too late to resist the measures in the Bill that threaten workers and social cohesion. Once the Bill passes through the Commons it will go to the House of Lords for consideration. We have seen in recent weeks the importance of the Lords in ammending legislation, so this will be an important phase for lobbying on the Bill.

Key threats in the Bill

  1. Linking immigration enforcement to labour market regulation

The Bill will create a new Director of Labour Market enforcement that the Bill would create who would oversee the work of the Gangmasters Licensing Agency, HMRC and the Employment Agencies Standards Inspectorate. The Director would set an ‘enforcement strategy’ annually which would outline how these three enforcement bodies will operate and resources for their work be allocated.

The TUC has concerns about the fact the Director would report to both the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills and the Home Secretary, and that both can amend the Director’s strategy.  The Home Secretary’s involvement in the Director’s work – and by extension the agencies they cover – means there is a clear risk that workplace inspections and regulation are used as a way to seek out and deport undocumented migrants.  The Tories were, in fact, clear that this is part of the intention of the Bill. When Cameron introduced it in a speech in May, he said the Bill was being introduced as a way of:

‘dealing with those who shouldn’t be here by rooting out illegal immigrants and bolstering deportations…[and] making Britain a less attractive place to come and work illegally.’

The TUC has argued that combining immigration enforcement and labour market regulation only makes exploitation for all workers more likely however. Undocumented migrants will not report the abuse they frequently face at work because they are afraid of being deported which means bad bosses that use undocumented workers to undercut other workers will not be routed out and conditions get worse for everyone.

In the Committee stage, Labour MP Keir Starmer submitted an amendment to make clear that the Director’s role was  ‘to cover labour market breaches, not immigration offences’, but this was rejected.

As part of the same rejected amendment, Starmer called for the Bill to state that ‘adequate resources are provided to agencies that regulate the labour market’.    This would have been important to add as the government has slashed funding to agencies regulating the labour market, reducing their ability to ensure basic labour rights are being respected. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which regulates sectors where workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse such as agriculture and shellfish gathering, has had its staff cut by 25% since 2010 and now has just 67 frontline staff.

  1. Introducing a criminal offence for working without leave to remain, or beyond the restrictions of a visa, and classifying wages earned in such employment as the proceeds of crime. 

This new offence would mean even those with a legal right to be in the country could face a sentence of up to 51 weeks in prison simply for working slightly beyond the restrictions on their visa.  This is particularly likely to affect students who, in most cases, are only permitted to work a maximum of 20 hours a week.

Secondly, by criminalising undocumented migrants these provisions will also make it harder for bad bosses to be found out.  Undocumented migrants are unlikely to report an exploitative employer to the authorities when they know they are likely to face a criminal charge for being found out.   Bad bosses can also threaten to report workers to the authorities if they complain about bad conditions or try to join a union.

This will fuel unregulated employment, as employers are able to employ undocumented workers informally on a cheaper rate and on worse terms and conditions than workers they would employ legally. Encouraging unregulated market working not only increases exploitation but is also a drain on the economy, as workers are not as able to contribute to taxation through their wages.

The TUC has argued undocumented migrants should be provided with employment rights separate from their immigration status so they can report bad employers and be treated on equal terms with local workers.  This principle is enshrined in Article 23.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states ‘everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment’.

In the Committee stage of the Bill, Keir Starmer proposed an amendment which would mean undocumented workers that had a ‘reasonable excuse’ to be employed would not face prosecution. This would have meant those who believed they had documents to be in the country legally but who have actually been given bogus papers by their employer– as we know often occurs – would not face a jail term.  This amendment was unfortunately also rejected.

3. English language requirement for public authorities

The Bill will require public authorities to ensure each person who works in a customer facing role to speak an adequate level of English.

The TUC has questioned the necessity of this provision as the government has not produced evidence to suggest those in customer facing roles in public authorities currently do not have an adequate level of English. In fact, evidence from unions shows adequate English language skills are already a requirement to be employed in customer facing roles in the public sector.  We are making this clear in our response to the government’s current consultation on the measures.

We are also raising concerns that these measures look likely to increase discrimination.  Unions already have considerable experience of dealing with disciplinary and grievance situations in relation to discrimination against workers whose language ability is questioned because of their accents.

Rather than introducing penalties, the government should support employers and trade unions to deliver workplace based English language classes, for example, through Unionlearn.

4. Turning more workers into border guards

The Bill’s requirement for landlords to check the immigration status of tenants and banks to check the immigration status of current account holders will encourage everyday discrimination against anyone who doesn’t ‘look’ British.  These document checks will make it harder for migrants and BME groups to have access to essential services and turn staff in banking and housing into border guards.

The Bill’s provisions to give immigration officers new powers to enter and search small businesses such as corner shops and close them for 48 hours, meanwhile, also means the risk of ethnic profiling in raids will increase.

5. Closing off support for failed asylum seekers and their children

These these proposals will increase poverty amongst asylum seekers and their children which is already high.  They  are also likely to compel more asylum seekers into unregulated employment to survive, fuelling the exploitation and undercutting discussed above.

The TUC believes the government must reverse cuts to local authority budgets so there are resources for them to fulfil their duty of care to failed asylum seekers and their children.  We believe asylum seekers should be allowed to work so that they are able to provide for themselves and their families adequately and contribute to society.

What can you do?

  1. Find out what your union and groups arond you are already doing to lobby on the Bill. Migrants Rights Network brought together a number of organisations lobbbying on the Bill at a public event this week including the TUC, JCWI and ILPA. The broader our alliances to show the damage the Bill stands to do in our  workplaces and communities, the more likely it is our concerns will be heard.
  2. Write to the Lords about your concerns
  3. Write to your MP or even better, see them in person and give a personal story of the way the Bill will make you or your workmates more vulnerable at work or the divisions it will heighten in your community.
  4. Promote progressive messages in debates on migration – unless we can shift the political narrative away from blaming migrants for the low pay and lack of decent jobs and services too many people are facing, anti-migrand policies like the Immigration Bill will continue. Read the report of the year long project the TUC ran to promote progressive messages on migration here and take the short enlearning module we have developed here.