Speaking for Ourselves

Stop blaming, start building: a new migrant labour policy

Stop blaming, start building: a new migrant labour policy


 Migrant Voice - Stop blaming, start building: a new migrant labour policy

The government needs to clarify its position on the use of migrant workers, which is a mess.

Two aspects of policy need change, quickly: overall attitude and everyday practices.

Overall, immigration policy must explicitly recognise the individual and equal humanity of individuals who come to these shores. Migrants must not be labelled and treated as aliens. Migrants are human beings with lives, feelings, and families, and their presence benefits society as a whole.

Secondly, policy should be based on principles and need, not numbers. Setting a target number plucked out of the air to stave off anti-immigration media or political factions means that if a booming industry requires more migrants, workers for another vital area will be barred.

Nothing illustrates the absurdity of policy by numbers than the cabinet split over whether or not to cut the number of overseas students attending British universities. The suggestion is seen partly as a way of getting closer to government promises to curb immigration, even though education secretary Gillian Keegan has described international students as “a huge economic contributor” and university heads  have warned of the damage caused by talk of limiting overseas students.

Thirdly, the government needs to be honest, and inform and educate the public about the contribution and importance of migrant labour.

It’s already way behind the public on this issue. A recent YouGov poll showed 64 per cent majority in favour of employing overseas workers in the NHS, because TV pictures of foreign and ethnically diverse nurses, doctors and other health workers during the Covid-19 pandemic brought the message home with dramatic impact; there was near universal gratitude for the literally life-saving, overworked, underpaid and sometimes personally risky contribution of foreign workers.

Similarly, many of us know from personal experience that we are dependent on the kindness of strangers to look after our grandparents, parents and siblings in their homes and in residential social care.

But the poll also showed majorities in favour of more migrant workers in agriculture, hospitality and construction.

In terms of improving day-to-day practices, there are a host of improvements that could be made immediately, such as faster action and better coordination between ministries.

For example, in early December Tom Bradshaw, the vice-president of the National Farmers Union, said that 160 growers had written to the Immigration Minister for more seasonal labour visas, without which, the NFU warns, there will be fruit and vegetable shortages. He suggested there should be five-year rolling visa programmes. NFU director Minette Batters says that the country “wasted £60 million worth of fresh produce - fruit and veg -  that couldn’t be plucked in the first six months of this year”.

FLEX (Focus on Labour Exploutation) has also pointed out that tight immigration restrictions can push people into working undocumented or outside their visa conditions; and that immigration enforcement is prioritised over safeguarding of workers and enforcement of labour rights and standards, so workers experiencing exploitation are unable to seek help for fear of being reported to the authorities.

Another area of concern that Migrant Voice has consistently aired is the impact of bloated visa fees (over £2,600 per person, every 2.5 years). Our report, Destroying hopes, dreams and lives: How the UK visa costs and process impact migrants' lives, shows how migrants on temporary visas must pay tens of thousands of pounds before they can apply to settle, and how this affects all other aspects of their lives, from mental health to career opportunities. Worst of all, the effects are intergenerational, with children of migrants still facing the consequences of the immigration system.

And, of course, a new, humane, positive immigration policy needs a reformed Home Office. No more tinkering and empty promises to do better. A succession of Home Office ministers have condemned it as not fit for purpose — as though it is independent of government, when it is in fact implementing the government’s instructions and policies — and its ingrained hostile environment is intruding into other areas of government - such as its treatment of modern slavery as an immigration matter. It must be broken up and re-purposed.

TOP IMAGE: Immigration Arrival Stamp in Passport, Karn Bulsuk (Flickr), CC BY-NC 2.0

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