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Migrants are undermining working conditions?

No - blame 30 years of government deregulation for that, argues Don Flynn

There's a lot more discussion nowadays about the exploitation and rock bottom standards in the way the British labour market operates. But it looks like we've needed the presence of migrants to show us all just how bad things have become.

A recent conference by the Institute of Employment Rights on 'labour migration in hard times' and a new book of that title reviewed the predicament that migrants find themselves in.

The default mood surrounding such discussions is supposed to be one of profound gloom, seeing only problems stacking up but very little reason to believe we can have a decent crack at solving them. Though optimism would be the wrong word to describe what people felt, there was a definite sense amongst the experts that issues were beginning to appear on the horizon which might provide the opportunity for labour rights' activists to gain some purchase over events.

Bernard Ryan, who edited the book, talked about the irony of the presence of large numbers of migrant workers highlighting the fact that naked, brutal exploitation is alive and well across large parts of the UK labour market.

Would this fact have been so readily clocked if the reference point had solely been members of the native British underclass? There are depressing reasons to think not. The defeats inflicted on organised labour from the 1980s onwards raised the notion that British workers were an indolent, feather-bedded lot to first place in the narrative of the life of the nation, and from that point it has been extraordinarily difficult to get over the real sense of just how desperately and grindingly hard life has become for a large proportion of wage workers in recent decades.

Then along came the migrants, with their supposed infinite capacity for hard work in the most gruelling of conditions. Their predicament gave us something to marvel at, with the exoticism that came from the person being a Lithuanian fieldworker or a Ghanaian healthcare assistant working a 60 hour week for the bare minimum wage adding more lustre to the story than if they were a mere geordie, scouser or brummie.

A large part of our working population has had to adjust its expectations. Three decades of deregulation and casualisation of employment practices have brought us to the point where we should be proclaiming from the rooftops that for very many people, work just doesn't pay.

The presence of migrants provides us with the opportunity to marvel at the apparently heroic efforts of this one group of workers to drag out subsistence from the conditions of their lives. This at the same moment when we blind ourselves to the fact that there are now hundreds of thousands of people who are not migrants but who are being pitched into exploitative labour markets in the expectation that they will find a way to scratch out an existence on wages which are widely acknowledged to be below levels needed to secure a decent life.

Something more was added to our knowledge of the way labour markets now operate in the form of a separate report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Forced Labour's Business Models and Supply Chains sets out the ways in which the UK economy as a whole functions to deliver up a workforce which is at its most extreme end vulnerable to forced labour the term given to modern-day slavery.

Deregulated workplaces and informality in terms of recruitment practices and contracts of employment have created conditions which effectively require businesses to build brutal exploitation into their daily operation if they are to survive in competitive markets. The argument that the supposedly unnatural work ethic of migrants has brought this situation into being needs to be ditched once and for all.

The evidence which both the JRF and the IER have set out shows the risks which have accumulated in the world of work as a consequence of years of deregulation of labour markets. Even The Economist, the voice of business, has added its view to what follows when standards drop to rock bottom levels, to the point, as with the minimum wage, that even those regulations that do exist go largely unenforced. It argues that failure to uphold rules when they do exist ends up as another form of immigration policy, one which actively draws workers who are most poorly equipped to fight their corner more deeply into the trap of exploitation.

The IER book makes the case in ringingly clear terms: migrant and native workers need to fight together against exploitation. The conditions for the race to the bottom in the jobs market did not come about because migrants started to arrive in the country. Its essential features had already been put in place during the 1980s when the government piled anti-union legislation on the statute book and gave the green light to employers to push back against decent wages and working conditions.

The way out of this predicament is solidarity amongst all groups of workers and a renewal of the regulation of employment conditions and the capacity of trade unions and other workforce protection agencies to ensure that standards are maintained. So, we know what the problem is: time to act together to provide the solution.