by In Wales
Sun Sep 23rd, 2007 at 04:53:52 PM EST
I've been invited to discuss migrant workers issues at a forum next week, and due to workload being immense, I've not had time to prepare. I thought it would make a nice opportunity for a diary as well as consolidating my thoughts in preparation for the talk.
NB: blockquotes are mostly provided for ease of reading and are not direct quotes unless quotation marks are added
I did a diary based on a press release a short while ago called Dispelling the Myths - Migrant Workers.
One of the key issues here is that the distinction is not being made between migrant workers and asylum seekers and refugees. Racism, and Xenophobia tends to lump any foreigners together and tars them all with the same brush - although if you are white, this is likely to not be such an issue. I can't think of anybody I've heard complain about Polish workers stealing jobs make the same complaint about Australians or Canadians taking the much better paid management roles off our hands.
That said, I am not implying that asylum seekers and refugees deserve bad press either, but the situation is very different to that of migrant workers who are in the UK legally with the right to work, and this distinction needs to be made. Unions need to play a big role in challenging myths and misinformation about migrant workers.
Up front it is important to note that;
"Migrant workers contribute more in taxes than they receive in services, and migration probably leads to slightly higher levels of employment and wages for native workers."
Taken from The Economics of Migration: Managing the Impacts
The report does discuss that in certain areas of the economy there is anecdotal evidence of lost jobs and lower wages as a result of migrant workers moving in. More research is needed to gather evidence here but I'd offer the view that migrant workers themselves are not at fault but corrupt employers taking advantage of a vulnerable group of workers who do not know what rights they have and how to exercise them. In these cases, the same employers will exploit native workers if they are able to - so the issue to tackle here lies in demanding equal rights for all workers to be free from exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
This requires Trade Unions to be far more effective in the way they organise and unionise in workplaces. Poorly informed and poorly organised workers are much more likely to be exploited by employers which leads to undercutting services and products of principled employers and indigeneous labour. This is very much an area of conflict and a point from which right wing propaganda against migrant workers stems from.
For this reason and many others, such as tackling racism and fascism, issues affecting migrant workers are extremely important for trade unions to deal with. Indeed many unions in the UK are now launching recruiment drives targetted at migrant workers in response to the changing demographics of the Welsh workforce. They are producing materials in a number of languages in order to make all workers aware of their rights and the importance of joining a trade union to be protected in the workplace.
So what else are trade unions doing to tackle the issues faced by migrant workers?
Most unions have equality committees that represent and campaign on BME issues, including migrant workers. Some may have reps in the workplace who can offer advice and support, or access to full time officers in the union who are highly trained to deal with negotiations and cases of discrimination or bullying.
It's also important to remember that unions are political organisations and in this respect are stakeholders of policy and try to influence government policies through lobbying and campaigning in order to represent the best interests of their members.
This includes campaigning against the BNP and against fascism and racism, working with organisations such as Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism and the Race equality Councils. The Wales TUC will be targetting Wrexham and Swansea in the run up to the local elections, where the threat of the BNP winning seats is quite high. The aim is to minimise the spread of BNP support in these areas which also have high numbers of migrant workers.
Trade union education courses in workplaces provide access to crucial skills and language training opportunities which benefits workers and employers. This is very much an increasingly strong arm of many unions and the TUC, in supporting good partnership working with employers and upskilling of the workforce.
A Commission on Vulnerable Employment has been set up to look at the difficulties faced by vulnerable workers who are more likely to experience exploitation or discrimination in the workplace. The Commission has been talking not just to representative bodies but to vulnerable workers (including migrant workers) themselves. CoVE is expected to report the findings in Spring 2008, although an evidence brief is already available. Other evidence is being gathered by a Wales TUC commissiond research report into migrant workers in Wales.
More research and better collection of stats is vital for us to know how many migrant workers we have in the UK and Wales, where they have come from, where they are now, what they are doing and so on. Many figures are estimates based on smaller scale surveys or indirectly obtained form other sources of data.
This will provide us with a much clearer picture and direct evidence of how widespread exploitation of migrant workers is, and give a way for unions to challenge the poor conditions of these workers in the UK.
Some of the key problems facing migrant workers in the UK:
Recent Home Office statistics show that 78% of migrant workers from EU accession countries are being paid £4.50 - £5.99 . Evidence exists of debt bondage, where workers are forced to work to pay off `debts' arising from overinflated costs of accommodaton and food and not receiving pay until this is paid off. This is effectively forced labour and illegal practice.
Illegal or unfair deductions from pay
Deductions taken to pay for company uniforms, meals, equipment, taking toilet breaks, with agency workers being far more likely to experience such unfair deductions from pay. Since many migrant workers find themselves working through agencies or gangmasters, they end up with fewer rights, worse terms and conditions and little employment protection. Workers who are not aware of their rights and do not have access to union support may not be able to challenge an employer who is illegally deducting pay, for fear of being dismissed.
A significant number of migrant workers are provided with accommodation as part of the job, with deducations from the wages being made for this. This is another way for employers to unfairly reduce pay and also to provide the threat of homelessness if a worker does not toe the line.
This applies not just to unsafe working practices but also the prevalence of bullying in the workplace. Bullying and racial discrimination against migrant workers is widespread. I don't think a single week goes by without local or national press running a story about attacks on migrants. Also the recent case of the Morcambe Bay cockle pickers, where a number of Chinese migrant workers were killed when they became trapped by the tides, is an example of unsafe working conditions.
Insecurity at work
Over 50% of agency temps are working for an employment agency because they have been unable to find permanent work. Again, migrant workers largely fall into this category and do not have stability in their jobs.
The top 20 jobs that are taken by migrant workers are low skilled and low paid jobs, employing two thirds of all registered accession country migrants. Employer surveys show that migrant workers are recruited for these labour shortages because they are more willing than UK workers to work for unattractive conditions, pay or hours and are believed by employers to be more reliable and motivated.
However, approximately 40% of migrant workers have qualifications at NVQ level 4 or 5, compared to 25% of the UK population. These skilled workers are filling crucial skills gaps such as within nursing and engineering, and are absolutely vital to the economy and delivery of services. I'll remind you here that migrant workers contribute more to the economy than they receive in services.
This leads me onto the last section which looks at the wider situation facing migrant workers in the UK. Migrants don't just work here, they live here too and this raises the issue of how migrants can be integrated into their local communities with the same opportunities to be involved and to exercise their rights as the indigenous population.
Issues arise such as;
Language and Culture
Low literacy or spoken skills in English/Welsh make it difficult to access services and understand their rights.
As already mentioned previously, accommodation can be tied to jobs and is usually crowded and poor quality, with landlords' practice putting a strain on local housing markets, fuelling further backlash against migrant workers.
Lack of knowledge or language skills hinders access to healthcare and other services such as setting up bank accounts. Race Equality First in Cardiff runs a bank account clinic to support migrant workers when they first arrive in Wales.
Migrant workers, especially where they are present in large numbers, often experience racism, abuse and harassment and hostility from their local community. In this respect it is important to promote the benefits of having migrant workers in Wales and to support the provision of services that make it easier for migrants to become integrated and accepted within their communities and workplaces.
One final issue for trade unions is to get the message out to migrant workers that unions in Wales are different and hopefully much more effective and more widely accepted that unions in their home countries may be. It is necessary to be aware of the misconceptions that some migrant workers may have about trade unions when they arrive in Wales, and seek to break those down and promote the benefits of union membership more efficiently.