The new immigration rules are not really about Brexit. They're about ripping off workers

Daniel Trilling
Photograph: Vadim Ghirdă/AP

If you want to see how little the government would prefer things to change once the coronavirus pandemic has subsided, look at its immigration policy. Over the past few months the Home Office has fought hard to maintain the labyrinthine bureaucracy, exorbitant fees and harsh punishments that govern the lives of migrants from outside the European Union. Rules that ban some people from accessing NHS treatment, food banks and emergency housing have only been partially eased; while detention centres have not been fully evacuated, and the Home Office has been accused of putting pressure on immigration judges releasing detainees on bail. Concessions for NHS and care workers, meanwhile – on visa extensions for bereaved families, or lifting the immigration health surcharge – have only been made haltingly, after pressure from the public, the Labour party and even some Conservative MPs.

The government has pushed ahead with its plans to extend much of this migration system to include EU citizens. The home secretary, Priti Patel, who has previously been criticised for avoiding scrutiny during the crisis, began a publicity drive for the second reading of the new immigration bill. “This historic piece of legislation,” Patel wrote in the Express, “ends the European Union’s free movement of people and lays the foundations to build a fairer, firmer, skills-led points-based immigration system.”

Labour rightly pointed out the “hypocrisy” of pushing through legislation that will prevent many health and care workers find work

The bill, which passed its second reading in a parliamentary vote on 18 May, is being presented as the fulfilment of the central demand of Brexit voters. But it is better described as a leap in the dark. Rather than setting out what the new immigration system – due to come into force in January 2021 – will look like, it gives the government powers to amend the law as it sees fit, without bringing it back to parliament for full scrutiny. Key areas remain undetermined, such as rights to family union and permanent settlement, visas for NHS workers, and the treatment of trafficking victims and asylum seekers. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) describes the bill as a “blank cheque” that will transfer EU citizens into “the same system as non-EU nationals which is dysfunctional and chaotic, with a long history of incorrect decision-making”.

To many people, the bill will seem an entirely fair proposition. It purports to offer a system based on merit – where “people can come here based on their skills, not where they’re from”, as a slogan floating above the union jack, tweeted by Patel, puts it. High earners and people with certain specialisms, such as research scientists, are in; “lower-skilled” workers, who have jobs with salaries below £25,600, are not. But this rests on a claim that has been exposed as false by the pandemic, which is that “low-skilled” workers are worth less to society, and easily replaced.

Labour, which voted against the government on the second reading, rightly pointed out the “hypocrisy” of pushing through legislation that will prevent many health and care workers find work in the UK in future, and leaves a question hanging over the visas of some already here, even as these workers are publicly celebrated for their role during the pandemic.

In truth, the contradiction was beginning to show even before Covid-19 arrived. When the immigration bill last came up for public discussion in February, a series of industry representatives warned they would face dire shortages if they were expected to replace workers from the EU by the start of next year. The public services union Unison warned of “absolute disaster” in the care sector, while farmers and builders also said they would face labour shortages. At the time, Patel’s response was that businesses should focus on training up the 8.5 million “economically inactive” people already resident in the UK, a figure that critics soon pointed out was largely composed of people who were too old or too sick to work, or who were students or carers.

This stance was regarded by some as a gaffe, yet it is consistent with Patel’s ideology. Since becoming home secretary last year, she has openly positioned herself as an heir to Margaret Thatcher: so far the most prominent part of this has been her hardline stance on borders and crime, displayed, for instance, at last October’s Conservative party conference. But she is also an acolyte of Thatcherite economics. Patel, along with other ministers including the foreign secretary Dominic Raab, is a co-author of Britannia Unchained, the 2012 book by what was then a new crop of rightwing Conservative MPs who argued that the UK should strip away employment laws and other state protections to better compete with rival global economies. “The British are among the worst idlers in the world,” the authors infamously declared.

Although ending EU free movement has sometimes been dressed up as a way to protect British workers’ interests, this is far from the government’s primary concern. What’s more likely is that it expects British residents to assume the same low-paid and precarious jobs that were previously being filled by immigrants from elsewhere in the EU. And when that proves impossible, the government will most likely look to create temporary exceptions that allow immigrants to take up jobs in sectors where there are labour shortages.

Related: The NHS surcharge for migrant staff is gone. Why did it take such a fight? | Nesrine Malik

Unlike free movement, which at least gave EU workers the choice to come and go as they please and to look for other jobs when they were mistreated, these exceptions will come with heavy restrictions on migrants’ rights – time limits, visa conditions, bans on accessing state support – that make it easier for employers to push them around, or for traffickers and abusers to exploit them. This already happens with many low-paid migrant workers from outside the EU, and the conditions are being set for a repeat. The JCWI warns that a temporary visa scheme for seasonal agricultural workers, which the government plans to expand to make up for the shortfall once free movement ends, is ripe for exploitation, and that workers “will have no meaningful way of challenging abusive employers”.

This isn’t just an issue for the UK: countries around the world have belatedly discovered the need for people who clean, care and provide food, even though they are frequently underpaid and their jobs frequently reserved for those societies find easier to exploit: migrants from poorer countries and regions, women, and people from minority ethnic backgrounds. The pressure to keep these jobs going during a pandemic has opened up a debate in many countries about how they are valued: undocumented migrant workers in southern Europe and the US; Romanians flown in to pick western European crops; Ukrainians desperate to avoid travel restrictions to work in Poland.

In a recent essay, the labour researchers Sara Farris and Mark Bergfeld suggest that we stop calling the jobs that underpin the economy “low-skilled” and instead describe them as “life-making”. They have proved essential to our survival, and it is only right that they should be treated as such with good pay and conditions, and that the people who move around to do them should be free of harassment by the state. Any government that uses immigration control to dodge this central issue is ripping workers off, whatever their nationality.

• Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right

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