In an Impossible Situation: Immigration and employment security
Until 2 years ago I worked as a trade union official with USDAW. One of the areas I covered was Merthyr Tydfilwhere there has been a substantial migrant workforce for most of the last decade. This was particularly evident at two workplaces which I covered. St Merryn Foods – a meat processing business with up to 1000 workers on site and OP Chocolate, a food manufacturing factory, where around 200-300 worked. The mainly Polish migrant workers were almost all employed as ‘agency’ workers, some becoming part of the core workforce. These workers are in an impossible position as they work on a ‘casual’ basis and are effectively unable to complain about conditions and extremely difficult to organise. They are not guaranteed any hours but could easily be told that they were not required tomorrow or for the next week. The existence of an agency workforce of more than 30 per cent meant that pay negotiations were not just disrupted but almost impossible. This led to friction within the workforce and many workers at the plants started to blame the ‘Polish’ workers – union representatives tried to respond that it was not where the workers were from that was the problem but the type of work contract that they were working under. I think we had only limited success.
Whenever I and other colleagues tried to raise this with Labour ministers they seemed to be frightened of considering this issue in terms of agency employment and always wanted to stress the positive implications of migration – the only Labour figure who did show an interest was Ed Miliband and this was one reason why I supported him for the Labour leadership. I was disappointed when an IPPR report said last year that there was no evidence of migrant workers having a depressing effect on the level of wages. I cannot believe that this is true, but it is not because they are migrant workers but because of the nature of their contracts – their lack of employment rights and contract security. The sad fact is that the present government are clearly determined to remove employment security not enhance it and unfortunately in regard to agency employment the Labour Government did not act to protect them. The idea of a ‘flexible labour market’ means that people do not have rights and their conditions are adversely affected. As Labour looks to the future it should recognise these mistakes and I think that Ed Miliband’s willingness to start a discussion about the effects of immigration is to be welcomed. I hope that it will lead to a proper discussion of employment security as well as rates of pay. It seems to me that the basis of belonging in a healthy society requires security – welfare, employment, health and education provision can all contribute to it but I do not think it is possible without employment security.
I know that some research has been done throughCardiffUniversityon the impact of migrant and agency workers. At some stage it would be useful to bring the people who have done this research together and perhaps the Bevan Foundation could host such a conference/seminar as part of the wider discussion of what needs to be done to achieve greater employment security.
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