TUC President Mohammad Taj represented the TUC at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) high level panel ahead of the European summit next week, promoting the ETUC’s “New Path 4 Europe” economic policy. This is an edited version of his opening remarks, which were on freedom of movement.
The UK Government is trying to restrict the freedom of movement of workers to the UK.
This is an issue that as you can tell is close to my heart, although I’m not your traditional Polish plumber, I happen to be a bus driver! I’m testament to the British trade union movement’s support for freedom of movement, and not just around the European Union.
A European Union which only provides freedom for goods, services and capital is a bosses’ and bankers’ Europe, not a people’s Europe!
The TUC in Britain has a long tradition of welcoming – and more importantly, organising – migrant workers, all the way back to the Irish and Jewish workers who at stages in our history formed the backbone of the trade union movement.
It’s not just me, the son of a poor peasant migrant worker from Kashmir. Our General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, is from an Irish family.
We’re also conscious that migration isn’t a one-way street. British-born migrants like to think of themselves as “ex-pats” but construction workers in Germany, electricians in Australia or even bar workers in Spain are all migrants too.
When the European Union expanded at the turn of the century, British unions backed our Government’s decision not to use transitional measures to control the employment of workers from Eastern Europe.
We reaffirmed our opposition to transitional measures when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU more recently, although that time we were without support from employers or the Government.
We have worked with trade unionists in Poland and Portugal, Bulgaria and Romania, to ensure migrant workers are aware of their rights by providing translated material, and we have adopted several methods to organise migrant workers, including organisers from within the migrant communities.
But recently we’ve been doing a lot more work to find out what ordinary workers think. Because there are justified concerns that bad employers and bad landlords have been exploiting migrant workers, putting them on fake self-employed contracts, paying them wages below the usual rate for the job and sometimes, illegally, below the minimum wage, while deducting high rents for crowded accommodation straight from their wages.
That has an effect on the existing workforce, too. So, frankly, does the tide of bile they get from right-wing newspapers, right-wing politicians and, I’m afraid, sometimes from the Government too.
What we’ve found is that working people in Britain are not racist, but they are worried.
They’re worried about fake jobs, about the prospects facing their children, about the cost of living and the fact that their wages aren’t keeping up.
But they also know that free movement is not the main cause of those problems. And they respond positively to calls for more labour market regulation to reduce exploitation and stop the race to the bottom of undercutting.
That means action against zero hours contracts, getting rid of the loopholes in temporary agency work, cracking down on employers who do not pay the minimum wage, and, fundamentally, doing something about getting fairness and a voice for working people back into the way we set wages.
Our research shows that British workers know that migrants are doing valuable work – in the health service, for example – and that the vast majority pay their taxes, they do not come to Britain to claim benefits or for the weather.
Campaigning for improved rights at work, we need to keep those migrants front and centre of our campaigning – and also the people who benefit from free movement, like hospital patients, people in care homes for the elderly, and, in my own case, the passengers on my bus!