On Monday the Immigration Bill will return to the House of Commons.
In the House of Lords amendments have been added to give rights and protections to asylum seekers and overseas domestic workers which provide an important counterbalance to the nasty thrust of the majority of the Bill which will make all workers more vulnerable and fuel social tensions.
As the TUC has made clear, the Bill’s measures to criminalise undocumented migrant workers, increasing document checks and close off support for failed asylum seekers play into the hands of bad bosses that want to use migrants as cheap labour and report them to the authorities if they report their exploitation. This only leads to a race to the bottom on wages and conditions for all workers.
The TUC believes that public concern about undercutting can only properly be addressed when undocumented workers have the legal right to work and a strong voice through a union to claim their rights at work as this will help all workers to get better treatment and fair pay.
The amendments to the Bill added in the Lords are important step towards this as they would provide asylum seekers and overseas domestic workers, two groups of migrant workers that currently have virtually no employment rights, with a way to gain recognition as legal workers and claim their right to decent treatment and pay.
The TUC will be calling MPs to support the following new clauses in the Bill on Monday:
Asylum seekers: permission to work after six months
This clause would give asylum seekers the right to work after six months. Currently the majority of asylum seekers do not have the right to work in the UK. They are forced to subsist on meagre benefits – recent cuts mean asylum seekers now receive just over £5 a day – rather than being able to support themselves and contribute to the economy.
The very low levels of benefits provided to asylum seekers in the UK mean that many are pushed into undocumented employment where they often face exploitative conditions and low pay. They are not able to report such abuse currently as they would face deportation, which means bad employers are being given a free pass to use asylum seekers to undercut other workers. Meanwhile an extended period of exclusion from the regular labour market has an impact on asylum seekers’ ability to find regular employment in the future.
Britain stands apart from its European neighbours in this respect, with asylum seekers able to work after three months in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Britain is also failing to uphold its international human rights commitments by failing to give asylum seekers the right to work. Article 23.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states ‘everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment’.
All workers benefit from asylum seekers being given the right to work as it means they have the right to be treated equally with local workers and can join with them in a union to stand up to exploitative employers. Community cohesion would also be improved if asylum seekers had early access to the labour market as it would increase the chances of their economic and social integration. Being able to work allows asylum seekers to improve their English, apply their skills and training and make contacts in the wider community.
Overseas domestic workers
This clause would provide a right for Overseas Domestic Workers to change employers where they are facing abuse – as we know they frequently are–and have the status to be in the country for at least two and a half years. This follows the recommendation of the independent review of the Overseas Domestic Worker visa carried out by James Ewins QC published in December.
Despite the fact the government stated an intention to implement Ewins’ recommendations, in March Immigration Minister James Brokenshire announced Overseas Domestic Workers would only be given the basic right to change employers during the six months for which the visa has been issued. After this period, an extension of stay will only be granted to an Overseas Domestic Worker who has been the subject of a positive conclusive grounds decision under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The TUC has made clear that it is unacceptable to introduce the additional hurdle of a positive result under the NRM for a number of reasons, not least of which is that abuse may occur without the actions of the employer constituting trafficking.
This clause would provide significantly more effective protection than those proposed by the government and mean Overseas Domestic Workers would have the chance at last to escape (and report) abuse without fear of deportation and find new employment where they are treated with respect.