The UK’s future migration system: denying migrant workers’ humanity?

“We asked for workers, but human beings came,” said Swiss novelist, Max Frisch, commenting on the treatment of migrant workers in post-Second World War Switzerland. Over seventy years later, the UK continues on the same course, treating migrant workers as commodified labour without consideration of their humanity.

The current post-Brexit plans represent a monumental shift in the UK’s labour migration policy. An end to free movement will have the greatest impact upon those migrating to take up low-wage work. Under free movement, anyone from the EU working in the UK could settle here, bringing their children and partners with them, integrating into existing communities and building up new ones. After Brexit, there will be a two-tier system where those earning higher wages will have access to more rights and protections than those earning less. Migrant workers in low-wage jobs, such as hotel housekeepers, construction workers, care workers and cleaners will be restricted to using temporary migration programmes with few basic rights.  

Future plans for temporary migration programmes: good for governments, bad for workers

Temporary migration programmes (TMPs) suit governments: they can meet industry demands by providing a stream of low-wage workers, while appearing tough on immigration by avoiding an increase in the number of permanent migrants in a country. It is no surprise, then, that the current UK Government is opting for such an approach. The government’s 2018 Immigration White Paper outlines plans to introduce two such programmes as ‘temporary measures’ to help industries currently reliant on low-wage migrant workers to adjust to the end of free movement. These include a twelve-month scheme to bring workers at any skill level from unspecified ‘low-risk’ countries to work in the UK for a maximum of twelve months, followed by a twelve-month cooling off period; and a sector-specific ‘Seasonal Workers Pilot’ for a limited number of non-EU nationals to come work on UK farms for six months, followed by a six-month cooling-off period.

Lessons from comparable programmes around the world reveal that migrants moving for work under temporary schemes are more vulnerable to labour abuse and exploitation. This is integral to the design of these schemes, as short visa timeframes and long cooling-off periods prevent people from integrating. They are also prevented from building up the skills, knowledge and networks that promote resilience to exploitation, or moving into jobs with better wages and working conditions. The TMPs proposed in the 2018 White Paper fit this pattern: they only allow people to come to the UK for stays of between six and twelve months and prevent them coming back for equally long cooling-off periods. The Seasonal Workers Pilot also restricts participants from working outside the agricultural sector. Given these workers will likely be coming to the UK to do low-wage work and are therefore unlikely to have accrued savings in their home country, it is expected that many will need to take out loans in order to cover the costs of travelling to the UK and paying the visa fee and other associated costs of migration. As seen on other such schemes, the pressure to pay back debts and earn back on investments within a limited timeframe drives exploitation, including debt bondage.

A stark future for workers in post-Brexit Britain

These plans paint a stark future for the labour market in post-Brexit Britain, with a steady turnover of migrant workers who remain disposable to the whims of the capitalist market with little legal protection or entitlements to cushion them. Workers under temporary migration schemes will be less likely to speak English, less likely to be aware of their rights, and less likely to join trade unions or community organisations that could provide support should their rights be violated. This is particularly problematic in the UK where the enforcement of workers’ rights is under-resourced and almost completely dependent on individual workers bringing complaints against their employers. As evident in the recent prosecution of the UK’s ‘largest modern slavery ring’, those workers who are most likely to experience labour abuses are usually the least likely to complain, due to issues such as language barriers, fear of deportation, fears concerning loss of income and worries over losing the capital invested in reaching the UK. As a result, their abuse often flies under the radar meaning unscrupulous employers can exploit workers without providing any basic worker protections. Such practices have wider consequences for UK nationals working in similar sectors as businesses opt to use cheaper and more vulnerable migrant labour as a means of undercutting wages and lowering working conditions.

Temporary migration programmes bring precarious, low-wage workers to the UK whilst outsourcing the associated social costs. Employing migrant workers through restrictive and temporary migration schemes means employers and the state reap the benefits of a cheap workforce without having to pay the social costs normally associated with a labour force, such as support for family networks (parental leave, child care or care for the elderly) or social safety nets (healthcare or benefits for those with long-term illness or injury, homelessness or unemployment assistance). If a temporary migrant becomes pregnant or seriously ill, they will have to go home or pay inflated healthcare costs via private insurance. This means temporary migrants pay twice: once privately, as well as paying taxes on their UK earnings. None of the workers in the government’s proposed schemes will have recourse to public funds, including access to essential services such as homelessness assistance and welfare benefits. Denying access to these services can create extreme vulnerability among migrant workers, as the alternative to working under exploitative conditions is often homelessness and/or destitution if they cannot immediately find new paid work. Those who meet the threshold for being recognised as victims of ‘modern slavery’ under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 are eligible to receive support through the National Referral Mechanism, but this is limited and, for those who are undocumented and have no access to other visa pathways, is likely to lead to administrative removal.

A more decent approach

An instinctive reaction to these issues might be to call for the abolition of temporary migration programmes, and certainly not their introduction after Brexit. However, this is only an improvement if there are other, better routes of entry available for people coming to the UK to do low-wage work. Where there are no pathways for regular migration, people are likely to come through irregular routes and end up undocumented – a status that puts people at even higher risk of exploitation than being a temporary migrant.

Instead of stopping people from migrating, or introducing a two-tier system that keeps migrants in exploitable low-wage jobs, we need to recognise all workers as human beings entitled to the same workers’ rights regardless of nationality, migration status or earning power. Providing pathways to permanent residence, and its attached entitlements, would rightly recognise that people on lower wages, including workers in social care, construction, agriculture and hospitality deserve basic rights. Alongside this recognition, we must also ensure the effective enforcement of labour standards at state level. This includes proactive labour inspections and free and accessible advice and complaints mechanisms to make sure all workers are supported in accessing their rights.

Taking these steps would raise labour standards in the UK and recognise the economic, social and cultural contribution of migrants to the UK and would undermine the notion that migrant workers  are employed to the detriment of resident workers.

Meri Åhlberg is a Research and Policy Officer at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)

Image Credit: Kurman Communications, Inc. via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)