By Don Flynn*
There’s a lot more discussion nowadays about the exploitation and rock bottom standards in the way the British labour market operates. But it looks like we’ve needed the presence of migrants to show us all just how bad things have become.
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The Institute of Employment Rights – a ‘think tank for the labour movement’ – held a stimulating one-day conference on ‘labour migration in hard times’ yesterday in central London. The conversation followed the issues raised in a new book of that title published by the Institute which reviewed the predicament that migrants were finding themselves in.
The event brought together a well-informed group of people with links to the trade union movement, migrant groups, and researchers involved in industrial relations issues.
The default mood surrounding such discussions is supposed to be one of profound gloom, seeing only problems stacking up but very little reason to believe we can have a decent crack at solving them. But, though optimism would be the wrong word to describe what people felt, there was a definite sense amongst the experts that issues were beginning to appear on the horizon which might provide the opportunity for labour rights activists to gain some purchase over the headlong rush of events.
Bernard Ryan, who edited the new book, talked about the somewhat ironical fact that the presence of large numbers of migrant workers has highlighted the fact that naked, brutal exploitation is alive and well across large parts of the UK labour market.
Would this fact have been so readily clocked if the reference point had solely been members of the native British underclass? There are depressing reasons to think not. The defeats inflicted on organised labour from the 1980s onwards raised the notion that British workers were an indolent, feather-bedded lot to first place in the narrative of the life of the nation, and from that point it has been extraordinarily difficult to get over the real sense of just how desperately and grindingly hard life has become for a large proportion of wage workers in recent decades.
Then along came the migrants, with their supposed infinite capacity for hard work in the most gruelling of conditions. Their predicament gave us something to marvel at, with the exoticism that came from the person being a Lithuanian fieldworker or a Ghanaian healthcare assistant working a 60 hour work for the bare minimum wage adding more lustre to the story than if they were a mere geordie, scouser or brummie.
One contributor to the discussion after another made the same point: a large part of our working population has had to adjust its expectation and three decades of deregulation and casualisation of employment practices have brought us to the point where we should be proclaiming from the rooftops that for very many people, work just doesn’t pay.
The presence of migrants provides us with the opportunity to marvel at the apparently heroic efforts of this one group of workers to drag out subsistence from the conditions of their lives at the same moment when we blind ourselves to the fact that there are now hundreds of thousands of people who are not migrants who are being pitched into exploitative labour markets in the expectation that they will find some sort of a way to scratch out an existence on wages which are now widely acknowledged to be below levels needed to secure a decent life for any individual and her dependents.
Something more was added to our knowledge of the way labour markets now operate in the form of a separate report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Forced Labour’s Business Models and Supply Chains sets out the ways in which the UK economy as a whole functions to deliver up a workforce which is at its most extreme ends vulnerable to forced labour – the term given to modern-day slavery.
Deregulated workplaces and informality in terms of recruitment practices and contracts of employment have created conditions which effectively require businesses to build brutal exploitation into their daily operation if they are to survive in competitive markets. The argument that the supposedly unnatural work ethic of migrants has brought this situation into being need to be ditched once and for all.
The evidence which both the JRF and the IER have set out shows the risks which have accumulated in the world of work as a consequence of years of deregulation of labour markets. Even The Economist, the voice of business, has added its view to what follows on when standards drop to rock bottom levels, to the point, as with the minimum wage, that even those regulations that do exist go largely unenforced. A comment piece published this week argues that the failure to uphold rules when they do exist ends up as another form of immigration policy, but one which actively draws workers who are most poorly equipped to fight their corner more deeply into the trap of exploitation.
The IER book makes the case in ringingly clear terms: migrant and native workers need to be together in this business of fighting their corner against exploitation. The conditions for the race to the bottom in the jobs market did not come about because migrants started to arrive in the country. Its essential features had already been put in place during the course of the 1980s when the government piled anti-union legislation on the statute book and gave the green light to employers to push back against decent wages and working conditions.
The way out of this predicament is solidarity between all groups of workers and a renewal of the regulation of employment conditions and the capacity of trade unions and other workforce protection agencies to ensure that standards are maintained. So, we know what the problem is: time to act together to provide the solution.
The IER book ’Labour migration in hard times: Reforming labour market regulation’, edited by Bernard Ryan, can be ordered from www.ier.org.uk.
Read original story here.
This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.