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Instead of Pushing Immigrants Into the Shadows, Labour Should Point Out How Regular Employment Helps Immigrants and British Workers Alike

23/01/2014 13:39 GMT | Updated 19/03/2014 09:59 GMT

This past weekend Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary, proposed to work with partners to reform the freedom of movement for workers from other EU countries who seek low-skilled jobs in the UK. Umunna was apologetic about the decision to remove transitional arrangements early for EU citizens whose countries joined the EU in 2004. However, taking into account the consequences of labour market restrictions imposed on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants between 2007 and 2014, applying such restrictions more widely would encourage exactly what Chuka Umunna tries to prevent: EU citizens are just as unlikely to "self-deport" as other immigrant groups. Imposing further restrictions on regular employment is likely to create a shadow labour market, where no minimum wage applies, and where wages, and social protection for British workers would be undercut.

In fact, Umunna and other politicians who intervened in the public debate on EU immigration should also consider the negative effects that labour market restrictions imposed between 2007 and 2014 have had on immigrants and on low-skilled British workers alike. Figures for the year 2012 show that around 150,000 Romanian and Bulgarian nationals were living in the UK before labour market restrictions were lifted. This was highlighted to Keith Vaz in his visit to Luton airport on 1st January 2012. Romanians and Bulgarians have enjoyed the right to travel freely to the UK and stay in the country since 2007. But in contrast to Pollish nationals, and other Eastern Europeans, they have not had access to the regular labour market. Of course, now after the restrictions have been lifted, Romanian and Bulgarian nationals working in low-skilled jobs will be more likely to seek regular employment, and pay taxes. The combination of freedom of movement of persons and of labour within the EU normally guarantees that those who can travel to other countries, also have access to the regular labour market. They have to be paid at least the minimum wage, and enjoy the same social protection as native workers. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post explains, it is better for low-wage workers to compete against immigrants who are employed regularly than against immigrants who are employed irregularly because the latter are more likely to drop their wages below the national minimum wage. Moreover, since irregular workers do not pay taxes, they also do not contribute to funding the NHS, state schools, unemployment benefits, or the police; in short any public services that are particularly important to low paid British-born workers.

Instead of promoting unworkable policies that, in reality, will hurt British workers on low pay most, Chuka Umunna, Ed Miliband, and others in the Labour Party should reflect upon their families' immigration experiences, take a page out of Barack Obama's playbook, and show how regular employment benefits immigrants and British workers alike. Chuka Umunna's mother enjoyed the freedom of movement and of labour provided to her by the accession of Ireland to the EU in 1973. The question is does the Labour Party really want to advocate a policy that would push millions of hard working, law-abiding individuals and their families into irregularity. While the bipartisan US immigration bill that has been passed in the Senate proposes to give irregular immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and hence access to the regular labour market, the Shadow Business Secretary currently seems to be advocating in favour of stripping Europeans exactly of this very right. After Chuka Umunna has been compared to Barack Obama on countless occasions, who can spot the irony in that?