Britain’s exit from the European Union must deliver a migration policy that changes the UK from a race-to-the bottom to a rate-for the-job country.
So said the leader of the biggest union in the UK Len McCluskey, as he warned that the `fatal attraction’ of access to cheap labour offered by the expanded European Union had caused working people to break faith with the project.
Addressing the conference of the Class think tank today (Saturday), Len McCluskey said that the concerns of working people that labour movement has hit jobs and pay can no longer be ignored.
He called for guaranteed safeguards on jobs, rights and wages to take precedent in the development of the UK’s emerging immigration changes, and for employers seeking to recruit workers from abroad to prove that a trade union will be active in the workplace to defend the terms and conditions of all employees:
“There is no doubt that concerns about the impact of the free movement of Labour in Europe played a large part in the referendum result, particularly in working-class communities.
“It is those same communities – traditionally Labour-supporting – where the Labour Party is now struggling.
“As long ago as 2009 Unite’s private surveys of membership opinion were showing that even then our members were more concerned about immigration than any other political issue, so we are past the point where working people can be convinced that the free movement of labour has worked for them, their families, their industries and their communities.
“That is why we need a new approach, to move away from talk of “freedom of movement” on the one hand and “controls” on the other and instead to speak of safeguards.
“Safeguards for communities, safeguards for workers, and safeguards for industries needing labour. At the core of this must be the reassertion of collective bargaining and strong trade unions. Any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad should only be able to do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining. Put together with trade unions’ own organising efforts this would change the race-to-the-bottom culture into a rate- for-the- job society.
“It would end the fatal attraction of ever cheaper workers for employers, and slash demand for immigrant labour, without the requirement for formal quotas or restrictions.”
Arguing that the over-supply of cheap labour has `pit worker against worker’, McCluskey urged the labour movement not to shy away from the issue but instead to take the lead in brokering the urgently needed fresh approach to immigration:
“The problem is not cheap labour in Britain – it’s cheap labour anywhere. Anyone who has had to negotiate for workers, in manufacturing in particular, knows the huge difficulties that have been caused by the ability of capital to move production around the world in search of far lower labour costs and higher profits. Supply and demand affects the sale of labour too, pitting worker against worker.
“But while it would be easy to simply say ‘let’s pull up the drawbridge’, that’s impractical in today’s world. Instead we must do everything necessary to organise all workers here into trade unions, wherever they may have been born and whatever their history, and fight for decent pay, proper working conditions and full rights at work.
“This country – the sixth richest in the world – is more than capable of providing every worker, wherever they are from, with a decent job and every family with a decent home.”
Len McCluskey called for migration management to be fair and reasonable not just to workers and industry in the UK but to those countries supplying workers too:
“Let’s not pretend that free movement is a straightforward benefit to the countries workers are leaving behind, being denuded of young people and skilled labour. We need to create a system that works for everyone, wherever they are born.
“The free movement of Labour is the price for keeping access to the single market, which is essential for so many British jobs. That problem needs to be frankly acknowledged – fixed barriers to free movement will hardly be acceptable to the European Union if access to the single market is to be retained.
“But with the safeguards I call for, taken alongside Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to fair rules and reasonable management of migration, as well as Labour’s pledge to restore the Migrant Impact Fund for communities suddenly affected by large—scale migration, there is the basis for giving real reassurance to working people in towns and cities abandoned by globalisation.
“Never forget what unites all of us: anger at the government’s disgraceful treatment of refugees, who deserve safety and protection. Shame at the Tory attempts to use EU citizens already living and working here as a sort of negotiating card – they must have the right to remain - and a determination to resist the rise in racist attacks and invective which has blighted our society past-referendum.
“However, we can no longer sit like the three wise monkeys, seeing no problem, hearing no problem and speaking of no problem.
“We must listen and respond to working people’s concerns because that is the only way to earn their support, consigning today’s opinion polls to the dustbin, convincing working people that the labour movement is their best protection in an uncertain present and their best hope for a prosperous future.”
For a copy of the full speech click here.