Labour leadership under pressure to support free movement after Brexit

Peter Walker Political correspondent
Manuel Cortes, of the TSS, has introduced the report calling for ‘free movement-plus’. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Labour’s leadership will face renewed pressure at the party conference to support the continued free movement of people post-Brexit, after a report backed by MPs and unions warned that to do otherwise risked letting workers face exploitation.

The report, put together by the remain group Another Europe is Possible, argues for what it calls “free movement-plus”, which would see the existing system augmented by better protections for workers’ rights.

It has an introduction by Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA transport union, who is a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. It is backed by Young Labour and MPs including Clive Lewis, formerly a frontbencher under Corbyn.

At the Labour conference beginning on Sunday, delegates will decide whether to debate a parallel Young Labour motion committing the party to supporting continued free movement. If passed, it would be binding on the leadership.

Official Labour policy is to back free movement during any Brexit transition deal, but the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, has stopped short of making any long-term commitment.

The party is split on the issue, with the influence of instinctively pro-free movement frontbenchers such as Diane Abbott balanced by pressure from MPs in strongly leave areas in the Midlands and the north.

But in his introduction to the report, Cortes writes that the fears of those seeking to limit new arrivals from the EU are misplaced, arguing that current net annual migration from the bloc amounts to just 0.19% of the UK population.

“A failure to examine the facts surrounding free movement, and the vital contribution workers from across the EU make, has led some sections of the left to involve themselves in a debate which pitches worker against worker,” he writes.

“Many of the people most concerned about immigration – those left behind by globalisation – are the first to be impacted by the absence of these workers from our public services and vital food industries.”

The report, by a pair of academics, Luke Cooper and Zoe Gardner, highlights the significant economic risks of suddenly cutting down on the overseas workforce, with areas such as agriculture and the NHS likely to be especially affected.

They argue that proposed alternatives to free movement would risk letting workers be exploited, particularly if people given time-limited employment visas for the UK were obliged to stay with a particular employer.

Citing examples including the plight of foreign workers constructing the infrastructure for the 2022 Qatar football World Cup, and an existing UK visa scheme for non-EU overseas domestic staff, the report says such a plan would be risky.

“Even though the contractual relationship between an employer and employee is still an unequal power relationship, the ability to move between different jobs is a fundamental right that makes a free labourer less exploitable than someone being forced to work against their will,” it says.

The authors also point out that allowing EU nationals visa-free access to the UK for tourism, but imposing restrictions for work, would most likely bring “the unintended consequence of incentivising the rise of an undocumented economy for migrant labour”.

The report’s idea of free movement-plus would involve using existing EU regulations to limit the ability of arrivals to indefinitely seek work, as well as new safeguards such as a ban on “foreign only” recruitment, and more inspections for sectors using lots of unskilled labour.

Lewis, MP for Norwich South, said the motion at the conference in Brighton “provides an opportunity for the Labour movement to take a clear, principled position on immigration that makes sense and benefits everyone – after decades of retreating”.

Caroline Hill, chair of Young Labour, said the group was determined to see its motion on free movement be adopted.

“Like everyone else, young workers face exploitation, poverty pay and a housing crisis,” she said.

“We need real solutions – a union in every workplace, massive investment and higher minimum wages – not restrictive border controls that attack the rights of ordinary working people and limit our potential.”

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