Free Movement

11 October 2017 | last updated: 12 October 2017

Kirsten Forkert (BMSC/Birmingham City University)

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the ongoing Brexit negotiations, some very important debates are taking place within the trade union movement about freedom of movement. It's urgent that this debate takes place now, in the light of leaked proposals from the Home Office about drastically restricting the rights of EU citizens, imposing similar restrictions which currently exist for non-EU citizens and extending the 'hostile environment'.

This reflects a worsening tone in public debate around immigration, in which it is taken for granted by politicians and commentators that migrants drive down the wages and conditions of settled workers, despite the lack of evidence to support this. The Home Office suppressed evidence from up to nine studies that demonstrated no discernible link between migration and the depression of wages, and the Leave campaign misrepresented the research of Sir Stephen Nickell to claim that immigration drives down wages.

As educators, we are concerned about the circulation of common sense prejudices within a climate of post-truth politics where 'we have had enough of experts'. As trade unionists, we are fundamentally opposed to arguments that pit immigrant workers against settled workers, or that present the presence of immigrant workers in the UK as a problem (rather than unscrupulous employers who underpay their staff, or the austerity measures which have led to public sector pay freezes).

Labour history is full of shameful examples where particular sections of society were treated as a threat: for example the entry of women into the workforce was once perceived as a threat to male livelihoods, and 'colour bars' were once in operation to keep out Black workers. We should similarly reject arguments against free movement as divisive and damaging, and as deflecting blame from employers and the government onto our own members.

We are a global workforce and our members are from all over the world, and we believe this is something to celebrate, not to fear. As educators, we teach our students to be outward-looking and to engage with the promises and challenges of a globalised society (which is why we are so concerned about the loss of access to programmes such as Erasmus+). We participate in international research and teaching exchanges and collaborations, which could be seriously undermined by the loss of free movement. As trade unionists, we are opposed to our members being treated like bargaining chips and believe that we must organise for all, not reinforce division.

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