The news that a Labour Campaign for Free Movement has been ushered into existence is to be heartily welcomed. The website for the campaign went live at the end of this week and managed to get a fair bit of coverage in the media, with reports worth noting in the Guardian and the Independent.
The campaign has begun with a statement setting out the core argument as to why the Labour Party should be speaking up in defence of the freedom of movement which is in danger of being lost because of Brexit. After setting out the reasons why a progressive, leftist party should repudiate attempts to scapegoat immigrants as the cause of the present-day crisis the statement goes on to say:
A system of free movement is the best way to protect and advance the interests of all workers, by giving everyone the right to work legally, join a union and stand up to their boss without fear of deportation or destitution. Curtailing those rights, or limiting migrants’ access to public services and benefits, will make it easier for unscrupulous employers to hyper-exploit migrant labour, which in turn undermines the rights and conditions of all workers.
In other words, by making migration a right to freedom of movement we create the conditions where newcomers are able to stand up for themselves in circumstances where they would otherwise be vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation. Much needs to be done to make trade unions into organisations that truly welcome people who are still finding their feet in the UK. But by working to end the threat of arrest and deportation for immigration status reasons will increase opportunities that workplace organisers to build up a strong membership amongst those who most need the protection of industrial organisation.
Migration without rights?
This is particularly so at a time when just about everyone, including many people who were prominent in the Leave movement, are now agreeing that immigration is going to continue at high volume after the date when the UK formally exits the EU. The report that Home Secretary Amber Rudd has commissioned from the Migration Advisory Committee, as I argued in my blog last week, seems designed to provide employers with a stellar platform in which they can set out their arguments why they should continue to have access to the valuable resource which migrant labour provides to the UK labour market.
The problem is that in all these versions migrant workers from the EU are to be stripped of the rights to equality of treatment, protection against discrimination, and access to the social security system which current exists under the provisions of the European treaties. Without these rights EU citizen migrants will be deprived of the leverage they need to resist employers who wish to push their earnings down to minimum wage levels and below. The need to get prior approval from the Home Office for taking a job will lead to greater risks of deportation in the event that employers seek to deal with protesting employees by dismissing them and thereby cancelling their residence permits.
The Labour Party and the trade union movement ought to be speaking up much more clearly to say they oppose increasing the levels vulnerability to exploitation which exist across workforces in this age of ultra-flexible gig employment and zero-hour wage contracts. Ending all the rights associated with free movement would multiple these risks and entrench the worst practices of the modern-day labour market even more deeply in the UK economy.
Rights for non-EU migrants too.
More than that – and this a point that the new Labour campaign can be expected to take up and develop – we should be prepared not only to defend existing free movement rights, but also raise the question of why these are not being extended to people from outside the UK who are filling vital vacancies in scores of industries.
This is already being raised by groups of ‘third country’ migrant workers already. Domestic workers, amongst whom nationalities like Filipino, Indian, Indonesian and groups of Africans predominate, have been demanding a visa specially tailored to their circumstances, giving them greater security and the right to change jobs when it is on their interests to do so. The website of the campaign group Justice for Domestic Workers gives more details of the fight that is being waged for these rights.
The appearance of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement is a really encouraging start for a programme of work which we must hope will win the support of tens of thousands of party members and trade unionists and put some backbone into the stance of the leadership of the party, which many view as disappointing on this issue. Within hours of the campaign being launched a further 400 people had come forward to ask for their names to go onto the already long list of people who backed the founding statement. It’s a great beginning – let’s build on it!
If you are a member of the Labour Party or an affiliated organisation and wold like to support this new campaign, visit its website and sign-up to the launch statement.