Banksy Clacton-on-Sea mural, photographed by Duncan Hull/Flickr. Creative Commons.
Last week saw the line-by-line scrutiny of the government’s Immigration Bill draw to a close. With the ink barely dry on what the government had presented as its flagship stand against severe exploitation—the Modern Slavery Act—the change in approach couldn’t be starker. I have sat on the committee charged with scrutinising the Immigration Bill over the past five weeks, and during that time it has become painfully apparent to me that ‘the nasty party’ is back.
Home Secretary Theresa May described the 2015 Modern Slavery Act earlier this year as a piece of legislation that “says to victims, you are not alone—we are here to help you”. Yet, Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech announcing the Immigration Bill struck a distinctly different tone, promising instead to tackle immigration abuses that damage the UK labour market and to punish undocumented workers.
To call the suggested measures dangerous would be an understatement. They vilify the exploited and, even worse, strengthen the hand of unscrupulous employers. The steps contained in the Immigration Bill not only risk forcing undocumented workers into exploitative employment relationships—supposedly outlawed by the Modern Slavery Act—but potentially give abusive employers even more weapons with which to threaten employees.
The debates over the Immigration Bill make the good will behind the Modern Slavery Act a distant memory. The Home Office has lamented the gangmasters who lure workers to the UK promising decent work and exacting exploitation, and the Bill proposes a ‘Director of Labour Market Enforcement’ to crack down on exploitation, yet no additional resources have been allocated to allow the director to target the slave masters who were prioritised just a few months ago. What the Bill does provide, however, is the framework necessary to force victims to pay for the abuses they have suffered on British soil. Their wages will be confiscated and then we’ll deport them. The nasty party is back and it’s turning up the volume.
All respected organisations working to address labour exploitation, including Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) on whose board I sit, have condemned labour market deregulation measures that shift the balance of power from the worker to the employers, thereby allowing employers to exploit workers unchecked. The last government’s bonfire of regulations and red tape achieved just that—abuse has thrived with fewer labour inspections and less protection for workers. So concerned was the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee that it advised: “the counter-balance to a flexible labour market is to ensure that employers comply with the minimum protections for workers and that these are enforced”. Without this, it said, migrants will be exploited.
Witnesses who gave evidence to the House of Commons’ Committee on the Immigration Bill —from migrants’ rights organisations to the migration-sceptic head of Migration Watch, Lord Green—all told us that only by enforcing the duties of employers will exploitation be rooted out.
This is not just a question of human rights, although many of our international obligations will be contravened if this Bill becomes law. It also cuts to the core of the ‘productivity puzzle’ outlined by the Bank of England. Cameron has not only forgotten his anti-slavery commitments, he has also failed to learn the lesson of the last five years—a sustainable economic recovery will not be achieved by propping up bad business with weak outputs. The Bill will make it simpler for poor business models to thrive—models which depend upon cheap and exploitable labour—in the understanding that in Cameron’s Britain exploitation pays.
As the Business Secretary says in the government consultation accompanying the Bill, “if more rogue employers are brought to task for exploitation, this will reduce illegal wage undercutting and unlock wealth creation by legitimate businesses, by releasing them from unfair competition from exploitative rivals”. Sound advice on the face of it, but the government’s Immigration Bill is more concerned with criminalising victims than bringing employers to task. Indeed, the Business Department’s consultation proposes a more “flexible” approach to enforcement of labour standards. Rogue employers 2, victims 0.
The truth is that undocumented workers are not stealing jobs from British workers; they are instead propping up failing business models across the UK. The Immigration Bill will make this situation worse, not better. The Bill passed the House of Commons on 1 December. It now goes to the House of Lords, where Labour Peers and others will continue the fight to get the Government to rethink.