Can Europe Make It?

Free Movement Plus: a third way on the Brexit/migration debate

On Brexit and migration, there is an alternative to such a lurch backwards. We call it free movement+ where the plus refers to a new deal on workers’ rights.

Luke Cooper
25 September 2017

Shadow Minister for Brexit, Keir Starmer. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.What do football stadiums in Qatar, farms in Canada, and the palatial houses of London’s super rich all have in common? The answer provides a clear and present warning to the UK as it considers its options for a post-Brexit immigration policy with the EU. These places have all seen highly exploitative employment practices that arise from a toxic mix of poor labour standards, unscrupulous employers, and a migrant workforce with no ‘right to remain’ beyond the period specified in their work permit.

In our new report published today, Brexit and Immigration: Prioritising the Rights of All Workers, we show how across these case studies a lack of security in immigration status has persistently weakened workers’ ability to challenge exploitative employers.

Unfortunately, these issues have become all too relevant to the policy context in the UK where the idea of replacing EU free movement with ‘time-limited’ and ‘employer sponsored’ visas has been repeatedly raised in our immigration debate. When Tony Blair launched the UK points system for non-EEA (European Economic Area) migrants back in 2005 he promised a system that would allow ‘immigration where it is in the country’s interests and prevent it where it is not’.

Typically for Blair this ceded far too much ground to the right and anticipated many of the arguments of the EU referendum. The strict conditions in the system for non-EEA nationals would provide a continuous point of comparison for the pro-Brexit right and give credence to the idea that EU membership had led to a loss of ‘control’ over immigration policy.

Fast-forward to today and Blair’s claim Britain could end free movement while remaining a member of the EU is equally unhelpful. Unfortunately he is far from ploughing a lonely furrow on this crucial issue. Many progressives share his belief that ending free movement and replacing it with a system of greater immigration control can form part of either a reformed membership of the EU or a left Brexit.

Too often absent from this debate is the recognition that free movement is a system of conditional rights for all EU citizens. This provides all EU workers with a set of rights when living in another EU state, particularly the right to work and study. Crucially, free movement means they should to not be discriminated against in the labour market on the grounds of their nationality. This is particularly important in the UK due to the fact we have one of the least regulated labour markets in Europe where hyper flexible ‘zero hour’ contracts and artificial forms of ‘self-employment’ are all too common. Decades of free market reform have allowed a ‘race to the bottom’ to emerge in many sectors. When these conditions connected with the downturn following the financial crisis it led to the longest period of wage stagnation the British economy has seen since the mid-nineteenth century.

Immigration has become a convenient scapegoat that allows politicians to avoid addressing the fundamental causes of this injustice: a broken economic model, a precarious labour market and restrictive anti-union laws. In the current system free movement at least provides EU workers with a dented shield of protections in the face of these wider problems. Specifically, free movement rights ensure that unscrupulous employers cannot use the threat of deportation to erode workers’ bargaining power. 

By putting these rights at risk Brexit threatens to bring about a ‘worst of both worlds’ system: combining a high level of labour market insecurity due to weak employment standards with a migrant workforce much more vulnerable to super exploitation.

The appalling conditions faced by migrants building the Qatar World Cup stadiums offer an extreme example of where this might end up. Workers are recruited overseas and have virtually no political rights when they arrive. The Qatari government coordinates closely with vetted employers and employees have no right to move between workplaces.

The confiscation of passports and the denial of exit permits to leave the country have been reported, effectively creating a system of indentured servitude. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds the principle of a ‘free choice of employment’ and the fact a Gulf country may not be recognising its human rights obligations is perhaps unlikely to cause much of a stir.

But visa systems that tie workers to specific employers and provide only very limited right to remain in the country are far from the preserve of the Gulf states. Guest-worker schemes used in West Germany during the post-war period saw migrants consciously brought in to make up for a shortfall in low and unskilled workers.

Like migrants in Qatar these workers were often housed in on-site army-style barracks and similarly lacked basic political rights, such as freedom of assembly and association, a choice of employment, the right to move within the host country, or a pathway to Germany citizenship. These rights were only won gradually over decades. Canada provides an example of a similar guest worker system in operation today. Its Temporary Foreign Workers Program allows vetted agents to recruit migrants overseas, gives workers only limited freedom to move occupation once in the country, and establishes returns arrangements to ensure workers do not overstay their visa. The Canadian Labor Congress has argued this is a license for exploitation and called for a settled immigration scheme for low skilled workers to replace these temporary visas. 

When Tony Blair introduced the points system for non-EEA migrants he established a visa category for unskilled temporary workers (referred to as Tier 3 visa). However, with EU citizens able to fill many of the labour shortages in this part of the workforce the visa was never put into practice and is currently ‘suspended’. But ominously the visa rules are essentially the same as a guest worker system.

Under Tier 3, migrants would be tied to specific employers that are also responsible for their accommodation and return to their home country. There was also one exception to the ban on unskilled non-EEA migrants: domestic workers in a private household. Under these little known special visas the sponsor was one of London’s super-rich families. And the tying of these workers to these families gave free reign to human rights abuses.

Brexit has inevitably led to a renewal in discussion over the use of Tier 3 or other temporary work permits as an alternative to free movement. And the super-exploited migrant workforce this would ultimately create should alarm all workers. 

There is an alternative to such a lurch backwards. We call it free movement+ where the plus refers to a new deal on workers’ rights. This would maintain free movement with the EU but combine it with domestic legislation that strengthens the bargaining power of all workers.

A key part of this could be a legal position for sector-by-sector agreements negotiated between employers and trade unions to guarantee a minimum rate for the job - and take a big step against race to the bottom economics. With the Tories in crisis, now is the time a bold new approach that prioritises the rights of all workers. 

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