Earlier this year I spent a day in Boston in Lincolnshire, listening to the ideas of a group of local Labour, Conservative and Ukip councillors on dealing with the complex challenges and opportunities migration, almost entirely from Eastern Europe, has brought to the town in recent years.
Many of their ideas were simple common sense, dealing, for instance, with the lack of proper affordable accommodation and the appalling conditions in which many migrant workers are forced to work and live by some employers. They were as keen to see an end to the exploitation of migrants as they were to the effective exclusion from the local labour market of many local, especially younger, local workers. Quite right too.
Boston is not alone, of course. Many farmers in areas like East Anglia employ workers from the EU to gather crops in from the harvest. These workers come here legally, work long hours at physically exerting tasks, hundreds of miles from home. These workers aren't here sponging off the British economy as some might claim, but contributing to it. But sadly, as this investigation into leek pickers on the Cambridgeshire Fens shows, some have found themselves at the mercy of exploitative employers - modern day gangmasters.
After paying to be brought to the UK, they arrive here to discover they either don't have jobs waiting or worse, they are expected to work for far below the minimum wage having wages docked and deduced for rent in overcrowded slums filled with other souls doomed to the same fate. They are working long hours for pennies to live on at the end of the week.
This is why, as Ed Miliband said in his speech at Labour Party Conference last week, the next Labour government will strengthen national minimum wage enforcement, by increasing the fines that employers receive for failing to pay the national minimum wage from £5,000 to £50,000, the same level as the fine for fly-tipping. Ed's thinking on this is simple: undercutting the minimum wage not only leaves these workers to be exploited but it also undercuts local workers who are trying with all their might to find work in these tough times.
Following the deaths of cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay nine years ago, the previous Labour government introduced the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to make sure that we would never see the like again. Sadly, the Tory-led coalition is now attempting to water down the GLA so that there are fewer inspections carried out, leaving many at the mercy of this kind of exploitation once again.
Yvette Cooper has been clear on this - we would do quite the reverse. The next Labour government rather than watering down the powers of the GLA, would strengthen them and extend their role to further sectors of the economy, where there is evidence of exploitation and undercutting.
Britain has always been a nation of fairness and this is an important part of that - guaranteeing that we will clamp down on exploitation in the workplace and supporting local workers by enforcing the national minimum wage properly and making overcrowding in housing illegal. We will also ensure that companies have to invest in training local people by requiring firms that wish to bring in workers from outside the EU to offer apprenticeships in return.
Only by instilling fairness in the workplace will we reduce our dependence on low skilled migrant labour and create an economy that works for working people.
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