UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Standing up for the rights of migrant workers

Last night, Open Generation (a project developed by Migrants Rights Network in partnership with UNISON, NUS, Huffington Post and Be Inspired) hosted its first event - ‘The immigration generation gap’.
    The event (which facilitated opportunity to explore young people’s attitudes, concerns and opinions on immigration and free movement) was chaired by Owen Jones and heard from a variety of speakers of different backgrounds and perspectives (one of which was UNISON’s NEC young members’ representative Dan Goodwin). The night also featured four short commissioned films by young filmmakers and saw performances from spoken word artists.

The event was a huge success, seeing a packed out audience not just at the host venue (UNISON Centre), but also at the other three venues to which the event was being live streamed. There are plans for many more events to be held on the lead up to the European and General Elections – keep up to date with the campaign through following @opengeneration on Twitter. Dan’s speech can be read below:

‘Well firstly, I’d like to belatedly welcome you all to UNISON centre – the home of Britain’s largest public services union, representing some 1.3 million members.

Given its long standing commitment to standing up and fighting for the rights of migrants, UNISON really is proud to be hosting tonight’s event.

So, what am I going to talk about? Well in a nutshell, migrant workers.

Migrant workers are people who come to the UK from abroad to take up work (be it on a permanent, temporary or seasonal basis) and make up 13.6% of Britain’s labour force. They tend to be employed in low skilled, low paid, low status jobs which afford little or no opportunity of progression.

Pitiable pay, terrible terms and criminal conditions are often prevalent amongst migrant workers.

Often paid just the national minimum wage (and in some cases less), in-work poverty is rife amongst the migrant working community. Many rely on hours upon hours of overtime to just get by – this impacts greatly upon their ability to effect a healthy work/life balance. Scant holiday and sickness leave entitlements are common, as are unfair workplace policies and practices.

Little regard is often given to the safety of migrant workers, they often fall victim to workplace accidents as a consequence of unsafe working conditions. Cast your minds back to the disaster at Morecambe bay where at least 23 workers were killed by rising tides whilst harvesting cockles – this demonstrates the attitudes of some employers towards migrant workers’ safety.

So why are migrant workers treated differently to anybody else? Well, for a number of reasons:

Firstly, there’s a perception issue – a view amongst native Brits that migrants are ‘bad’ – bad for our welfare bill, bad for our job prospects and bad for our economy. We often see the mainstream media perpetuating this issue, with the likes of the Daily Toriegraph exclaiming front page headlines such as ‘Brits lose jobs to migrants’ and ‘Benefit tourists flock to Britain’.

Secondly, they are vulnerable – often unaware as to what their rights are at work. The stark differences between working conditions and wages in Britain and those of migrants’ countries of origin tend to cause migrant workers to have lower expectations than their UK counterparts. Consequently, migrant workers often accept less favourable employment conditions that are poor by British standards but high when compared with those of their place of origin.

So how might we tackle the issue of poor treatment of migrant workers?

Well firstly, we must, at every opportunity debunk the myths:

Tell of how migrant workers actually pay more in tax and claim fewer benefits than we native Brits.

Tell of how migrant workers plug skills gaps, and take up employment in sectors where there are talent shortages.

Tell of the numerous statistical studies that have shown that there is no correlation between immigration and UK unemployment levels.

Only through challenging the rhetoric of ‘migrants are bad’ will we change opinions and attitudes.

Secondly, we must recruit migrant workers into the trade union movement.

We must educate them of their rights, emphasising the ways in which they can tackle improper working conditions.

We must challenge exploitative employers, taking legal action where necessary.

We must continue to campaign for the equal treatment of migrant workers, lobbying government and influencing public policy.

So what has UNISON done to further the rights of migrant workers:

We have targeted migrants for recruitment into UNISON, and being a public services union have specifically concentrated on recruiting young migrants working within the health and social care sector.

We have developed tailored programmes to train and mentor migrants to increase active participation.

We have ran (and continue to run) an immigration advice line in cooperation with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants - a free service available to migrant members and their families.

We support organisations and campaigns whose aims are to further the rights of migrants and migrant workers.

We participate in Home Office consultations on policies affecting migrants and migrant workers, and lobby government for change, for the betterment of migrant workers’ rights.

Whilst we’ve done a lot already there’s still much to do – but I’m sure that through good old fashioned collectivism we’ll be able to make a significant difference.

Thank you.’