In his speech to the Institute for public policy research on Friday, Ed Miliband used the opportunity to trigger a “grown-up” debate on immigration in the UK. This must be welcomed, as for far too long the debate has been dominated by political parties either failing to fully recognise people’s worries or by lurching to the other extremes by making rash promises on dramatically reducing the immigration numbers. Neither of these are the proactive approach that is needed.
People’s concerns are real. Many people who work hard in this country have worries about immigration not because they hold prejudice against Eastern Europeans or anyone they see as not being “ethnically British”, but because they are concerned about the impact that migration may have on their employment, wages and overall working standards.
We need to look at those areas where EU migration may have caused a lowering of standards and talk about how we can change this.
In his speech, Ed raised some practical actions that could be taken at a national level. Issues like creating a more efficient and better equipped border agency and setting higher labour standards and tougher equality standards for recruitment agencies. These can all make a difference.
However, those of us who work politically at an EU level must also be aware that there are things we must be doing in Brussels in order to protect labour standards for all workers. One criticism that could be thrown at the last Labour Government is that in the EU it did not push hard enough to close some of the loopholes in the current system that has allowed wages of some workers to be undercut.
For example, the agency workers directive represented an opportunity for the UK government to tighten up standards for agency workers but instead we often dragged our feet at the calling of big business who still to this day put the idea of creating an even more “flexible workforce” at the expense of basic labour rights.
We also have the ongoing posted workers directive which has been one of the most controversial pieces of EU legislation in my time as Leader of the Labour MEPs. The loopholes in the legislation which allow companies to bring in cheaper labour at the expense of domestic workers, as we saw a few years ago in the case of the Lindsey oil refinery, must be closed. Posted workers legislation should be designed to allow for a flexible workforce, which can benefit our economy, but must not be used by companies to ignore local labour laws.
Labour’s MEPs have always and will continue to work hard on these issues in the European Parliament, with the understanding that free-movement must not create a race to the bottom in regards to employment standards and labour rights.
EU migration has had added massive benefit to the UK since 2004 but unless we tackle some of the legitimate concerns people have about some of its downsides we are in danger of losing sight of this.
I welcome Ed’s speech and hope that it has the impact it is intended to have in kick starting a proper, fact-based debate about immigration, one that is based upon people’s genuine concerns in troubled times about their jobs and their working conditions. While it may be difficult to take these actions right now in Westminster, we as Labour MEPs can and will continue the fight in Brussels. If we can create fairer working conditions for all Labour can go a long way in winning the public’s support on immigration.
Glenis Willmott is the Labour of Labour’s MEPs