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Low Pay (Migrant Workers)

3rd June 2008

In winding up a debate for the Conservatives on the protection of migrant workers, Jonathan Djanogly calls for better policing of legislation already in place that aims to protect vulnerable workers.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) raises an important subject today, about which he spoke strongly.

The protection of migrant workers is, of course, important. I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber today want to do everything in their power to put an end to the exploitation of certain sectors of the migrant work force and to prevent a rerun of the Morecambe bay tragedy. I agree with the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) that the issue needs to be looked at in a broader context, as it raises important questions about the control of immigration and dealing with poverty. I would add to that list, although the hon. Gentleman might not, the environment that we have created for employers-namely, the job creators.

What should not be a factor is xenophobia, as was strongly suggested by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Given that unemployment has risen for the last three months in a row and is predicted to rise increasingly over the next year, I agree that the subject needs to be analysed carefully. The challenge is to deliver action to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers without putting further strain on our already overburdened businesses.

We should certainly be looking to improve conditions for migrant workers by the better policing of existing legislation. Rights already exist, such as those in anti-discrimination law, health and safety legislation and employment and tax law, to protect vulnerable workers. It is important that Departments in charge of administering those areas work together efficiently and effectively to enforce those laws to achieve the intended effect. As the TUC recently argued, it is also important that employees are made aware of their employment rights. The trade unions are in a strong position to increase such awareness among workers, and their contribution is recognised in the recent report of the TUC's commission on vulnerable employment. Indeed, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), the shadow Secretary of State, were pleased to have contributed to that report. One area where the law needs to be more strictly enforced is on the operation of gangmasters. They can fulfil an important role in providing flexible short-term labour, but there is much evidence of illegal gangmasters breaking the law in various ways.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said-it was also argued by the hon. Members for Elmet and for Brent, East (Sarah Teather)-there is little point in having tough legislation if it is not adequately enforced. That, I would add, is despite the fact that such a failing is a hallmark of the Government's administration across the board.

The Conservative party supports the proper monitoring of the legislative provisions that relate to the payment of the minimum wage. It is currently estimated that 292,000 workers are being paid less than the minimum wage. I shall be joining the Government in speaking on behalf of workers who need to be protected from such exploitation when we debate the topic in more detail in the forthcoming Employment Bill, which is now wending its way through the other place. However, it must be appreciated that there is much conflicting opinion on the effect that immigration has had on wages.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, East that not all immigrants are poor, but today's debate is about those who are poor, and I speak in that context. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee examined the issue and found, as various hon. Members said, that although immigration has had a positive effect on the wages of better-paid workers it has had a negative impact on those on lower pay.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. One can argue the toss-there is scope for different theses-about the impact of immigration on national income and whether or not it has made the country richer. I think, on the whole, that it has. Would my hon. Friend nevertheless agree that it is critically important to recognise, against the manic rantings of the red-top tabloids, that the evidence clearly shows that immigrants contribute more to the national cake than they take from it?

Mr. Djanogly: I agree that immigrants have contributed a lot to this nation, but whether every immigrant contributes more or less to the national cake is something that has to be considered on an individual basis. I am arguing that when it comes to pay, the evidence is definitely at odds. The 2008 report of the Low Pay Commission, which investigated the influx of migrant workers to Britain, was more on the lines set out by the hon. Member for Islington, North, noting that

"it appears that migrant workers are contributing to the success of the UK economy by filling gaps in the labour market and that, in general, they have not displaced UK nationals in the workplace".

That is more like the argument proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. The evidence, however, is not conclusive. The report also dispelled the idea that migrant workers are routinely paid less than the minimum wage. It said that

"the vast majority of employers support and comply with minimum wage legislation".

It is important that we make that point. The effect of immigration on wages in the UK is uncertain. While that remains the case, we need to be wary about introducing new legislation that will distort market flexibility in a difficult economy.

Jeremy Corbyn: On the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of the national minimum wage, will he support me in welcoming the London living wage introduced by the former Mayor? Will he assure the House that the current Mayor of London will continue that humane and decent policy of ensuring that the reality of high costs in London are recognised in payment?

Mr. Djanogly: The general point is that there is a case to be made that the public sector should have a say on a voluntary basis in setting standards. That is generally to be encouraged.

Jeremy Corbyn: What is the answer?

Mr. Djanogly: It is not for me to give the hon. Gentleman an answer. He needs to ask the Mayor.

We now have an economic climate in which employers often have to employ migrant workers because they find it too expensive to employ British people. The hon. Member for Elmet said that the Government strategy affected the lower paid. However, the proposed agency workers legislation-the Minister might want to put me right on this-will not only capture the low paid. Between 1991 and 2006, a net 2.3 million immigrants arrived in Britain. In 2006 alone, 130,000 non-EU nationals were granted settlement. That represents a significant strain on our country's infrastructure. Whether such an influx is for good or bad may vary in different cases. The Conservative party has proposed that there should be an annual limit on immigration with admission based on the benefit to the wider economy.

Protecting migrant workers from exploitation is important. However, that is only part of the story if we are to tackle the underlying reasons for the need for such workers in the first place. The Conservative party proposes not only to cap non-EU immigration and bring in a more effective border police, but to look at ways to get the 1.61 million British people who are currently unemployed back into work-not least through welfare reform. We also propose providing the means to reintegrate into society the 25,000 under-18s who are currently not in education, employment or training. We would also make it easier and more attractive for businesses to take on employees. As the economy worsens and unemployment rises and wages are eroded by inflation, action needs to be taken to encourage employment, yet the Labour party is proposing further changes to employment law that will make employing staff an even greater burden for business. For example, the Government recently increased the rights of temporary and agency workers, and that is before the next round of the Warwick agreement. Labour, therefore, has adopted a very damaging attitude towards business.

Increasing working rights may be acceptable, but it will mean that more businesses will have to employ temporary workers to cover shortfalls. However, the recent beer and sandwiches deal means that employing such temporary workers, many of whom will be immigrants, will now be more expensive and burdensome for businesses. The unions may think that by demanding tougher monitoring of immigrant labour, it is less likely that companies will employ immigrants. The hon. Member for Elmet called the current position unacceptable, but that is too simplistic. Put in a wider context, more businesses are likely to be priced out of employing workers legitimately and may even be pushed into employing illegal immigrants.

To conclude on what we agree is a complicated issue, the protection of migrant workers is important for the Conservative party. Although a general legislative framework exists to tackle the problem, more should be done to improve policing in this area.

12.20 pm

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