• Local and migrant, workers unite!
• Join free movement bloc 21 March
• Stop Tory plans
On 19 February 2020 Boris Johnson’s government published more plans for the UK’s post-Brexit border regime.
The new policy is a flagrant assault on immigrant workers. We must call for Labour and our unions to comprehensively reject it, and in its place to champion the policy for migrants’ rights and free movement approved at Labour conference last year.
The plans will allow “skilled” migrants to apply for a work visa if they speak English and have a job offer from a licensed employer, for a job requiring at least A-Level-equivalent skills and paying at least £25,600. This salary threshold will be reduced slightly for designated “shortage occupations” and, bizarrely, for migrants with relevant PhD qualifications. There are also vague words about a slightly more liberal regime that may come later, for a select few of the “most highly-skilled workers”.
For so-called “unskilled” workers the outlook is even worse than under the proposals for highly restrictive 12-month visas made last year by May’s government.
There will be no general route in. The government will graciously let them enter if they come as a partner or under-18 child of a “skilled” worker. And Boris Johnson has claimed there will be no “special pleading” for industries left short-handed.
But that statement was immediately contradicted as the government expanded its agricultural guest worker scheme. This will allow 10,000 workers to come pick and process fruit and vegetables for a maximum of six months in a year before kicking them out. And similar schemes are promised “for scientists, graduates, NHS workers”.
We can expect that a range of industries will be lobbying hard for deals along these lines. According to the Institute for Government’s Brexit Director, we can expect that many will be quietly granted, despite what Johnson says for show.
The policy does not just represent a door being slammed in the face of many prospective migrants. Those who it does allow in will be rendered vulnerable to intense exploitation. Fundamentally, this will be a system based not on the rights of working-class migrants, but on their utility to employers.
Under free movement, migrants are (relatively) free to stay. They can put down roots, develop union organisation, and if they lose or quit their job, they can look for another. This makes it easier to push back against low pay and poor conditions.
Under both the “skilled” and “unskilled” routes in this policy, workers will be reliant on employer sponsorship for their right to stay – shifting the worker-boss balance of power even further towards the boss.
Guest workers on six-month and other tightly limited schemes will find it even harder to beat exploitation as they will be kicked out so rapidly: workplace organisation and bonds between workers will be disrupted by constant churn. Meanwhile some will overstay and become undocumented, at the mercy of dodgy bosses threatening to report them.
On top of this, some such schemes house guest workers in employer-owned accommodation, further reinforcing employers’ power over them.
Some will see this as something new. But non-EU migrants were subject to policies like this long before Brexit. What is happening now is their expansion to EU citizens. So we must not only resist the extension of the UK’s racist border regime, we must fight to roll it back – to free non-European workers as well.
Some Labour politicians and union bureaucrats will want to pander to the idea that immigration is a problem that needs to be curbed, and to go no further than requesting a bit of tinkering or watering-down.
We must demand that Labour and our unions oppose the policy wholesale. And that they link this to championing the positive alternative policy of free movement, equality and working-class solidarity that Labour conference overwhelmingly voted to adopt in September.
That means defending and extending free movement; rejecting any system based on caps or on migrants’ utility to business; closing all detention centres (not just two); allowing equal access to social security for migrants; making the right to family reunion unconditional; and extending voting rights to everyone who lives here.
The signs so far are not promising. In the leader and deputy candidates' platitude-laden statements to the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, none except Dawn Butler were willing to back all elements of this policy (bit.ly/lcfm-responses).
It will be up to Labour and union members to come out fighting and to drag our leaders behind us. We can begin by building the anti-borders bloc called by Labour for a Socialist Europe on the big 21 March anti-racism demonstration (12 noon from Portland Place, London W1A 1AA), and the national protest at the Heathrow immigration detention centres planned for 16 May.
The Labour Campaign for Free Movement will be announcing further actions and initiatives soon – check out www.labourfreemovement.org.