BRITAIN IS BOOMING, WE ARE TOLD. A record number of workers are in employment. That’s not all. The UK economy is greedily drawing in migrant labour to satisfy the needs of production. That is the tale that the Tories are spinning us. There is a dark side to this. There has been a wholesale casualisation of the jobs market in the UK and a massive decline in security and conditions of employment. The UK has experienced no rise in real wages and working class living standards since the Great Recession struck in 2008.
Are migrant workers being used to undercut ‘British’ rates of pay? Many feel that this is the case. The June 2016 vote for Brexit was driven in part by fears about migration. It is completely understandable that millions of workers feel left behind. But it is a dangerous illusion to identify migrant labour as the enemy.
The Tory government has decided that 52% of the electorate voted for Brexit because there were too many migrants coming into the country. There is no evidence for this. The issue was not on my ballot paper – or yours. So the Tories think the need to control migration is paramount. Let it be noted in passing that this was Theresa May’s obsession for more than five years as minister at the Home Office, where she proposed to reduce net migration to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands – a task at which she was spectacularly unsuccessful.
For socialists free movement of labour is a bourgeois freedom, part of the freedoms we associate with capitalist democracy. That is not to belittle its importance. Medieval serfs knew there was only one reason why they were tied to an estate, and their master was entitled to hunt them down if they tried to flee. They knew they could make a better living elsewhere.
Free movement of labour enables workers to do the best for themselves and their family. They have every right to do this. In particular when capital is able to move without restraint, restrictions on the right of workers to move gives the bosses an unfair advantage. But for socialists free movement of labour is not an unconditional right. It can be used by employers for ‘social dumping’- to systematically drive down wages.
Two cases decided by the increasingly neoliberal European Court of Justice (ECJ) show how ‘free movement’ can be used as an excuse for social dumping in the EU - to trump the right to strike and prevent effective trade union action. Both cases involve the ECJ’s interpretation of the EU Posted Workers’ Directive, which deals with workers sent to work abroad for a limited period The Viking Case: A Finnish ferry operator decided to reflag and recruit Estonian crews, because they could pay them much less. The Finnish trade unions called a strike and boycott. The rights of trade unions are protected under EU Treaties. All the same the right of establishment (to set up business anywhere in the single market) was deemed more important by the ECJ.
The Laval Case: Laval, a Latvian firm, won the contract to build a school in Sweden. Swedish trade unionists tried to get Laval to sign up to contracts respecting the rights of workers under Swedish law. The ECJ again ruled in favour of the employers.
So now the right to strike is endangered under EU law. It has never been secure under English law, where social dumping is also used under the pretence of free movement. Some migrant workers are deliberately recruited in order to drive down rates of pay in the UK. A chain of supply extends from UK-based employers to labour market intermediaries operating across EU borders. Jobs in Lincolnshire and other agricultural areas, to do things like cutting cabbages, are routinely advertised in the Polish press. They are not advertised in the UK press.
The intention is clearly to drive down wages and conditions in the industry in Britain. This is deliberate undercutting and should be made illegal. In this process migrant workers are the victims, not the enemy. Migrant workers must not be used as scabs, or to forcibly reduce wages and conditions in the host country.
This is not free movement: it is social dumping. It can and should be prevented by British legislation introduced by a Labour government. The bosses have actively encouraged the replacement of British workers by lower paid migrants. We oppose immigration controls and say: “Migrant workers are welcome here, but they must get the rate for the job.”
One of Jeremy Corbyn’s ten pledges is, “We will put the defence of social and employment rights, as well as action against undercutting of pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour, at the centre of the Brexit negotiations agenda for a new relationship with Europe.”