Behind the Immigration Bill that the Tories are attempting to rush through parliament, they intend to create a class of second-class migrant workers – those here for only twelve months and therefore unable to claim all their rights as workers. These workers’ vulnerability to super-exploitation by the most unscrupulous employers represents a threat to all workers in those sectors and pay grades. They can also be used to drive down wages and conditions for all. It is a pernicious idea, harming all types of workers, from new arrivals to long-established ones.
Labour has always argued that the economy, our jobs and prosperity must come first when negotiating a Brexit deal. We will not support anything that makes people worse off. It is a fact that freedom of movement ends when we leave the single market. But the Prime Minister herself has recognised the need for frictionless trade and has been told categorically by the EU that this cannot be maintained without a close relationship to the single market. If the government cannot be clear as to what the final agreement will be on our relationship with the single market, most of this bill makes no sense.
This is, of course, not how ministers present the legislation. The first clause of the bill removes the right to freedom of movement. Ministers want to claim that this fulfils the view expressed in the June 2016 referendum. Evidently, this is completely untrue. The referendum question was on our membership of the European Union, and anyone who asserts that ‘the voters really wanted’ something else is claiming to know the minds of tens of millions of people.
In reality, throughout this entire process, Tory politicians have put the campaign against migration and migrants first, to pander to some of the worst instincts in the British press. They have ignored the needs of our economy. Public sector employers like the NHS as well as companies vital to our prosperity in part depend on their ability to recruit workers from overseas to fill skills gaps and labour shortages. For Tory MPs jockeying for leadership positions, pandering to their own dwindling membership has been more important than the jobs, prosperity and decent public services for all of us.
Labour has voted against the clause of the Immigration Bill that ends freedom of movement. There is a very simple reason for that decision: nothing in the bill replaces it. Companies large and small, the public services and the universities have all come to rely on the flow of workers in both directions between this country and the rest of the EU. The government’s plans threaten to wreck that without anything to avoid huge shortages of workers, both high and lower skilled.
The Prime Minister recently claimed that she has always appreciated the contribution migrants make. Try telling that to the victims of the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment who were wrongly deported, illegally detained in immigration centres or deprived of their jobs or homes. Try telling that to all those terrified by her ‘Go Home’ vans, even if they were born here.
What we do know about Tory intentions all comes from the white paper accompanying the bill. It is there they set out their plans, not for fewer migrants, but more migrant workers with fewer rights. The terrible effects on those subject to zero-hours contracts will be magnified by a new cohort of workers with zero-rights, and an even greater blow to the rights and conditions of workers generally. Not only is this morally wrong, but it is economically damaging.
Once again, the Tories have put the cart before the horse. They want our prosperity and wellbeing to be sacrificed on the altar of a reactionary campaign against migrants – the Labour Party will have no part of it.