As part of her degree course, Filiz Celik, a migrant from Turkey, researched the conditions that workers from overseas face in the United Kingdom. The full text of her study can be read here, but this summary by Adam Ford gives some idea of the reality behind the media-generated myths.
After the Second World War there was a high demand in the UK for labour and, in order to boost the economy, the government set out to fill shortages with workers from other countries. These mainly came from the 'Old Commonwealth' (Australia, New Zealand and Canada), and then later the 'New Commonwealth' (Indian subcontinent, Africa, and Jamaica).
Before the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, Commonwealth and colonial citizens were allowed to enter the UK to provide necessary labour without any restrictions. However, this Act imposed controls, which mainly targeted black people.
In the 1970s because there was a lack of economic demand for labour, the 1971 Immigration Act was passed, tightening restrictions of migration into the UK.
In recent years there has been a large increase in the number of migrant workers coming to the UK. This has been spurred on by economic globalisation and the enlargement of the European Union.
The expansion of the European Union in May 2004 gave the citizens of new central and Eastern European member states - such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia - some rights within the territories of other member states, including the right to move and reside freely within the EU, the right to establish and provide services and the right to take up employment.
In 2005, the estimated number of people arriving to live in the United Kingdom for at least a year was 565,000. This is equivalent to an average of over 1,500 a day, but includes those not coming directly to work such as students. There are no figures available about how many migrant workers have come to Merseyside.
Despite the net increase in UK migration, only a quarter of those migrating from East and Central Europe intend to stay permanently. Overall, the point should be made that the effect of migration on both the host and home economies is positive.
While many migrant workers move into highly-skilled jobs, there are also a significant number who carry out low-paid, low-skilled jobs. The pay and conditions in these jobs has become the focus of much interest, especially in the wake of the shocking deaths of twenty-three migrant workers harvesting cockles at Morecambe Bay four years ago.
It is clear that a significant proportion of migrant workers, particularly those working in low paid, low skilled occupations, are being harshly exploited. Migrant workers are over-represented in industries and types of work where the safety incident risk is highest. They are also more likely to be injured at work than indigenous workers. Language difficulties prevent access to information, and also lead to communication problems, so many safety incidents occur because people cannot read warning signs or understand warning shouts from workmates. In addition - due to a lack of interpretation and translation facilities - they are not able to receive the relevant information documents in their own language, which would enable them to know their rights better.
Kathy Clarke, North West Organiser of migrant workers for the Unite union says.
"Employers take advantage of people's vulnerability in the work force and do not take the necessary steps to ensure that migrant workers have access to training, language support, translated policies and procedures etc."
Accommodation is another issue for migrant workers. Some employers create dependency, for example through providing accommodation as well as jobs and taking the rent out of wages. This deters workers from complaining, as this could mean losing their job and accommodation at the same time. In many cases there is a breach of legislation. Denise McDowell of 'Migrant Workers Northwest' says: "We see people who have had deductions taken from their wages that are illegal or they have not been paid for work that they have done.
Migrant workers are offered jobs that are often rejected by the indigenous worker. This can leave them in low paid and vulnerable positions. It is the migrants' legal status and employer pressure that keeps them from organising or demanding better working conditions.
Most industrial safety incidents happen at the end of the working day, when fatigue reduces attentiveness, and because migrants work very long hours they are most at risk. Although risk assessments are an important part of the safety system of the workplace, few migrant workers report knowing of these having been done for their job, and it is quite clear that risk assessments are rare.
"It is commonplace for workplace injuries sustained by migrant workers to go unreported." Says Kathy, "Many employment agencies charge migrant workers for safety boots, and other protective equipment, when direct workers have it provided at the employer's cost."
"Undocumented workers are the most vulnerable because the employer knows that they have no rights and that they can be exploited by paying very low wages; below the legal minimum wage, and may work in very unsafe and dangerous situations", says Denise. They fear dismissal or removal from the country. They are also afraid of using health services, and have even less information on their rights as workers and humans.
As economic pressures change in the UK, so do the types of jobs for which migration occurs. In 2005 the industry in which most work permits were issued was health and medical services (26.1%). This was followed by computer services and management and business administration (18.1% and 11.8% respectively). Migrants are therefore clearly responding to the particular needs that the UK economy presents to them more readily than those already in the UK. This effect has been amplified by the fact that the UK has seen a period of uninterrupted economic growth from the mid-1990s up to the time of writing.
New rules have been introduced under the Gangmaster (Licensing) Act 2004 to try and curb illegal practices of gangmasters and agencies, but the Act has been roundly criticised for failing to provide adequate protection for migrant workers. Not least of the criticisms is that the legislation doesn't cover the majority of migrant workers. The Act provides hardly any protection to those most vulnerable workers, and as it only requires simple registration to make an illegal organisation into a legal one it is only a paper exercise. Clearly much greater levels of regulation and enforcement are required to protect those migrant workers who are most exploited in the UK labour market.
Unscrupulous employers use migrant labour to undercut the conditions of native workers. ‘The employer will often try to divide the workforce, playing one group against another. It is important that they are united as workers when it comes to tackling the employer on all issues that affect their working lives be it pay, health and safety etc’, says Kathy Clarke. The condition of migrant workers is not only their problem; one way or another it is the problem of all workers in the UK.
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