Why I’m In: Pushing for Lexit Won’t Help Migrants or the Working Class
Brexit or 'taking back our country' from European elites will only hand it over to domestic ones and turbo-charge their bonfire of union rights. Our labour will become more 'flexible' and we will be more fucked over.
There are 3 million EU migrant workers in the UK, many of them working in manufacturing, wholesale and retail, and hospitality. Hospitality is the fourth biggest employer in the UK, with a workforce of 4.4millon - 70% of whom are migrant workers. It is also the most precarious and un-unionised with just 3.6% belonging to a union. Hotel housekeeping departments are mainly staffed by Eastern European women workers (pdf). Boris Johnson cannot wipe his butt in the morning without the help of a migrant woman worker.
So why should we care what happens to 'them'? Because what happens to them, in terms of access to employment rights and agency to challenge exploitation, will happen to us.
Anti-immigrant fervour paved the way for the introduction of NHS fees for migrants through the Immigration Act 2014. Under tabloid-stoked banners of ending 'health tourism', the NHS now has a legal and administrative framework for a charging health care system. You don't need to be a genius to work out who else this will be rolled out to – everyone.
Could we see a work permit or insurance system (migrant tax) introduced as a means of disincentivizing people from coming to work here? Or even a Danish style 'workfare for refugees' model where refugees are paid less than Danish citizens, on Apprentice rates, with corporations paid to take them on and keep them on for two years. In some cases accommodation is tied to employment (this is reminiscent of pre-EU accession conditions for exploited Eastern European migrant workers but can be prevalent for any worker with no legal status to work and who is dependent on Gangmasters). Whilst named an 'integration' measure, the Danish initiative is also exploitative and could act as a deterrent to migration.
Those pushing hardest for Lexit are not going to be hardest hit by it. When migrant workers are the pawn in this game of EU and domestic class control, voting for a move which will exclude them, and normalise restrictions on their rights, will not encourage their participation in a political process – a left wing alternative - which needs to include them as a part of the whole UK working class. Lexit only resonates with certain parts of that class - those with employment, language and immigration status advantages.
Collective working class organisation and defence against exploitation has been aided by EU membership. There are 70 employment directives enforced in the UK through the European Court of Justice. Many benefit women – three quarters of the UK part time workforce. Equal paid holiday rights, unpaid leave to take care of children and, given the previous Coalition government wanted to cap compensation in sex and race discrimination claims but was prevented by the ECJ, the right to a workplace safer from sexism.
TUPE- Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations – isn't a catchy rallying cry but it has helped organise and protect the most precarious workers in the county. Subcontracting is extremely common with agencies and contract cleaning companies swapping in and out of hotels, public institutions and offices, with big business acting like a croupier on speed. With TUPE, workers need to be consulted and can elect reps and contest a change in their terms and conditions, even if there is no recognised union and don't forget, union density is only 14.2% on the private sector, where this is rife.
TUPE rights aid unionisation as they enable workers to collectivise and halt a pay cut, new intensification of work processes, or other losses like paid breaks or bonuses, which would leave them even poorer. Take TUPE away and there will be no deterrent or consequence for companies in accelerating the race to the bottom based on ever-cheapening labour costs, Ie exploitation of workers.
So when we 'take our country back' are we going to take our workplaces back? Control over our own labour back? No one is talking about that. Why would the Tories abandon their trajectory of slashing and burning union rights, passing 11 restrictive acts between 1980 and 1996 and continuing with the strike-banning Trade Union Act this year? The bonfire will continue.
When 450million people are on the other side of a tariff barrier, when the EU only exports 10% of goods and services to us compared to us exporting 45% to the EU, where is UK trade leverage? Maybe it's going to be in having a workforce completely disciplined to the needs of capital, cheaper, un-unionised, fully flexible, and not subject to EU employment rights.
The interests and legislative capacity at a macro and domestic level will be there to enable an even 'lighter touch' labour regulation and low wage economy. We might be told that the pain, as with austerity, will be 'in the national interest', a teething symptom to put up with in order to really 'take our country back' – from union barons, migrants, EU nanny states, red tape – pick your foe.
Structural inequality and corporate 'rights' will harden at the expense of ours. There will be no departure from neo-liberalism. The capacity we need to ‘take back control’ is over our own labour, conditions and economic organisation. Under a Right-led Brexit, this capacity – and its connection to building for a genuine commons, for a European-wide Universal Basic Income, for resisting exploitation by capital, involving every part of the working class - will be weakened, structurally and politically.
A shorter version of this op-ed appeared on The Independent.