It’s worth recalling something about that Sunday Times laddie who went and got a job in the Leicester sweatshop. His claim was that he was an Indian student. That is, someone with the right to be in the UK but without the right to work while he was so. We can argue as to whether that’s the right way to run immigration law and student visas or not but that’s what his claim to his potential employer was.
That is, the offer of less than the legal minimum wage was to an illegal worker.
The Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that the conditions in garment sweatshops in Leicester are no longer an open secret shared by those in the know, but a nationally recognised shame. The government should be seizing this opportunity and taking action to rid these factories and many other workplaces around the country of exploitation.
Instead, the weekend brought us reports of Priti Patel comparing the situation in Leicester to the Rotherham grooming scandal, suggesting that “cultural sensitivities” were the reason why the endemic abuse had not been tackled. This sounds like an attempt to distract us from the policy failures that have led us here, to a country in which more than 10,000 potential victims of modern slavery were identified in 2019, and everyday products have exploitation in their supply chains.
Employers push abusive working conditions on to workers for one very simple reason: to make more money. In this way, it’s an opportunistic act. So, very simply, we need to remove the opportunity. How do we do that? There are three clear ways: properly funded labour inspection, ensuring reporting abuse is safe for migrant workers, and strong unionisation. None of them involve cultural sensitivities, and government has been asked for them repeatedly over the years.
Strong unionisation doesn’t aid illegal workers in any manner whatsoever. In fact, it reduces the wages they’re going to be offered, not increases them.
For a union is there – and this is as it should be too – to benefit the members of the union. Who are going to be, in the nature of these things, legal workers in the place and time they’re union members. So, strong unionisation means that only union members get legal jobs. Which is fine as we look at it along this margin.
But what does that mean for illegal workers? They’re going to be pushed even further to the margin, aren’t they? They’ve got to – and their employers have to as well – worry not just about HMRC chasing less than minimum wages, the local council looking for health and safety violations, they’ve also got to worry about the union chasing down the people employing non-union members.
Reducing peoples’ options lowers their wages – that’s what the Jim Crow laws were all about after all. Strong unionisation may indeed aid union members but it further screws over illegal workers. Which means that strong unionisation might indeed be the cure for something or other but it ain’t for low wages for illegals.
But then, you know, hammer, everything looks like a nail etc….