Friday, November 13, 2009

Apartheid labour laws for Britain? The European dimension

"NON-EUROPEANS SHUT OUT FROM ANOTHER 250,000 SKILLED JOBS", No, not a report from the early days of Apartheid laws in South Africa, but how Friday's Guardian headlined a story arising from a keynote speech by Gordon Brown, our Labour prime minister.

Earlier reports had given the impression that immigrants would only be allowed to take jobs for which local workers were unavailable - a form of discrimination which is ruled out by Britain's membership of the European Union.

For the Daily Express, on the other hand, still trying to find a niche to the right of the Mail , with readers who imagine themselves a cut above Murdoch's Sun, the front-page story on Friday was:


Friday November 13,2009 By Macer Hall GORDON Brown faced furious accusations of being “in denial” last night after claiming to have grasped the depth of public anger over Labour’s open-door immigration policy. "

This was illustrated with a picture captioned: "Asylum seekers waiting for their chance to come to Britain receive sleeping bags and warm clothes", to keep mean-spirited Express readers' indignation on the boil; and somehow the prime minister's speech, paying lip-service to liberal cliches about "diversity" while pandering to the notion that immigrants are causing a shortage of jobs, got mixed up with a tale about "criminals" being freed from a detention centre at Dover.

Britain has not had an 'open door' to immigrants for over a century, and besides not repealing Tory legislation like the 1961 Commonwealth Immigration Act, and 1971 Immigration Act, Labour governments have introduced their own. The draft immigration bill announced yesterday by the Home Office after Gordon Brown's speech - made in Southall of all places - will be the eighth piece of immigration and asylum legislation since Labour took office in 1997. Asylum seekers, regardless of their education or skills, have been forbidden to work since 2002.

Besides "simplifying" existing legislation, making life harder for students and asylum seekers, and devising quicker and easier ways to expel people from the country, the government wants to tighten the work permit restrictions. They have already closed the door on workers from outside the European Economic area for jobs classed as unskilled , and now a further 290,000 skilled jobs in engineering, catering and care would be added.

This is not really about "British jobs for British workers", the slogan used by fascists and racists like the National Front and BNP, borrowed by Gordon Brown when promising help for training, then quoted back to him with irony by East Linsey oil refinery workers who saw employers using European legislation and Italian contract workers to default on national agreements. Notice that no one in government or opposition proposes interfering with the freedom of capitalists to invest overseas; that not only multinationals like Ford or General Motors, but household British names like Burberry and Wedgwood have been allowed to move production and therefore jobs out of this country. Government itself has sent work abroad, from uniforms that used to be made by skilled Remploy staff to confidential data handling, call centres to Ministry of Defence shipping.

It is about dividing workers, insisting we must compete for a limited number of jobs, and be grateful to our employers for picking us over the rest. I can't help noticing the addition of care jobs - which are often filled by immigrants and usually women - at a time when local authorities are outsourcing and looking for ways to shed staff.

Employers will continue seeking the cheapest and most pliable labour, and banning wider sections of people is also a way of increasing the supply of "illegals", hopefully ready to put up with poor conditions and low pay and acquiesce in illegal practices by their employers, and keep quiet. It suits the traffickers, the gangmasters, and those cleaning firms who co-incidentally have a visit from the police and border officials whenever their staff have joined the union or put in for higher pay.

There is another aspect to current policies, which some liberals and 'anti-racist' campaigners seem slow to grasp. We saw it in the move to deny medical professionals who have trained in Britain employment in the NHS. All of a sudden, from being short of doctors and dentists, Britain has a shortage of jobs, and must look after its own graduates, so we're told. But the ban applies to non-European professionals, such as those Asian doctors whom working people have been used to. Not those from Europe. So much for the government's obsession with better English tests (raised again in the new proposals). Still, the racialists can feel reassured that the person who treats you is more likely to have lilywhite hands, even if they don't understand what you say.

At Gate Gourmet, airport catering workers, who may have held their jobs since before British Airways outsourced the job, and who were mainly Asian, and union members -were got rid of, after their American-owned employer turned to recruiting casual, agency labour - often east European. In Sweden, Asian seafarers who had crewed some ferries long enough to have joined the union and obtained Swedish rates and conditions, found themselves laid off because the firm considered it could exploit crews from the other side of the Baltic more cheaply, and collect a European subsidy too. In east London, firms working on the Olympic sites are employing mainly agency labour. Local people can rightly ask what happened to the jobs and prosperity they were promised, and apprenticeships for local youth -black or white?

Workers should be free to come and go wherever they like for work and decent pay. But we should not confuse that with the freedom of employers to employ whoever they like and pay as little as they can. It is right to demand more jobs and training for all, and to organise workers together for better conditions and pay. But it is not easy. The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has had to contend with ship owners who were exempt from either the Race Relations Act or Minimum Wage, free to hire where they liked, and pay what they could get away with. "How are we, as British seafarers, expected to compete for jobs when we see foreign crews being paid less than £2 an hour?", asked delegate Lee McDowell at this year's TUC.

In the past, unions including the RMT have gone to European courts or the European Commission seeking redress that was not afforded them by British authorities. But now the dangers are seen as coming from Europe. Two years ago the European Court of Justice ruled against Finnish seafarers’ right to take strike action, and for the right of Finnish ferry operator Viking Line to "freedom of establishment", to ignore collective agreements made with Finnish unions, re-flag its vessels to Estonia and recruit local crews on lower pay.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow warned that the ruling would be used by employers to impose lower wages across the EU on the basis that any action, such as against flags of convenience, ‘restricts the right of freedom of establishment’. “This unaccountable EU court has ruled that the right to strike, supposedly enshrined in EU law, is now ‘subject to certain restrictions’ and is only subject to ‘national law and practices’".

European court judgements have also gone against Swedish union's right to organise migrant workers, and told local authorities that union agreements setting pay and conditions for contracts were an interference with free competition. We wonder what this will do to promises made about union rights, safety and conditions on the Olympic sites? A firm can bring in its own workers, paid at the going rate in their country of origin, not the rate of pay where they are working. British employers have not missed the opportunities being presented them. British Airways threatened to bankrupt the pilots' union BALPA when it planned industrial action to prevent jobs being exported. Remember 'Fly the Flag'?

These issues will be discussed at a conference in London on November 28. Titled "The New Spectre Haunting Europe: the ECJ, Trade Union rights, and the British government", it is organised jointly by the Southern and Eastern Region of the TUC (SERTUC) and the Institute for Employment Rights. Speakers will include Professor Keith Ewing, Bob Crow of the RMT, Barry Camfield who was formerly assistant general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and is now on the board of the Olympic Development Agency, Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union, John Monks of the European TUC, and John Hendy, QC.
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