By Owen Espley
The first shots have been fired in the run up to formal Brexit talks. Theresa May's tour of European capitals is complete, and we are seeing a real danger that the call to 'control our borders' will be used not only to restrict freedom of movement but to further weaken the rights of those migrant workers who are already in the UK. We can't let this happen.
Big business has long benefitted from the ready supply of workers free movement brings, so it will do all it can to keep the doors open. Yet, when it comes to social and labour protections of migrant workers, big business will be equally busy lobbying the UK government to weaken these hard fought rights. David Cameron was all too keen to restrict EU migrant workers' access to benefits as part of his failed referendum offer, and these social rights will doubtless be in the firing line once more when the UK eventually begins Brexit talks with the EU.
As the labour movement maxim goes: 'an injury to one is an injury to all'. Only by ensuring all workers enjoy the same rights can this race to the bottom on social and labour protections be stopped. If not, we all suffer.
Freedom of movement is an important right secured by workers. Yet, as the UK labour market moves towards lower paid, less secure and more exploitative forms of employment, migrants in search of work find themselves increasingly vulnerable.
The precarious nature of work and its consequences has been on the rise since the mid-1970s, corresponding with a weakening of trade unions, deregulation and free market economics. Today, more and more workers find themselves on precarious contracts, unable to plan their lives or support their families as their hours and schedules are unpredictable.
Put simply, precarious contracts are a recipe for insecurity and exploitation. With bosses holding all the power, workers are too afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their job. In short, they are conditioned to shut up, regardless of the abuse they suffer.
We have seen it with Sports Direct, a company that employs a largely migrant workforce in its warehouses on agency contracts. The retailer's appalling practices, long called out by Unite, were laid bare in a recent select committee report by MPs. Workers treated as commodities rather than human beings and forced to endure Victorian working conditions. One pregnant worker came to work during labour, afraid of losing work if she took a day off. She gave birth in a toilet.
And then there is Byron, a hamburger chain with a £70million turnover, who recently invited some of its migrant workers to a ‘training day’ only to hand them over to the UK border agency for deportation. All too happy to make money off the back of migrant workers, before it betrayed them in a stitch up with the Home Office, Byron should to be ashamed of its two-faced behaviour.
When bosses act as border guards, exploitation and abuse will soon follow. Workers with the threat of deportation hanging over them will always struggle to challenge poor pay and appalling conditions. It’s why everyone should be entitled to basic rights at work irrespective of their immigration status.
Byron Burgers and Sports Direct are clearly two sides of the same coin. Today, migrant workers across the UK face prejudice, abuse and exploitation. We must stand with migrant workers and end precarious contracts.
Owen Espley is economic justice campaigner at War on Want.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners