This week's Conservative Party plan to make some companies disclose how many foreign workers they employ may be controversial. But is a positive step forward for transparency, and could take the wind out of the sails of those peddling racist myths about immigration. Britain should learn from the Philippines, where radical transparency around foreign worker permits is already a legal requirement.
Open any widely circulated newspaper in the Philippine capital of Manila, and you might see something that would shock Britain's mollycoddled, left-leaning political commentariat to the core: A list of just about each and every foreign citizen applying for the right to work in the South East Asian country.
The mandatory list, published in widely circulated newspapers as a classified ad by authorities, contains not only the names of the foreign nationals applying for the right to work in the Philippines. It also features shows who their prospective employers are and gives some quite specific details about the work they are going to be doing. There are only a tiny number of corporate, educational and diplomatic work exceptions where this transparency requirement does not apply.
And the information isn't just being provided for passive public consumptions. Local workers can get actively involved in the system - and have their fair say: If anyone spots an illicit permit application in the public list, they have 30 days from publication to file an objection with employment authorities. If they can prove Filipino workers are willing and able to do the job applied for by the foreign national, the permit can still be revoked to protect local jobs.
Compare this to Britain's deeply intransparent, scrutiny-averse system for granting foreign work permits: Few ordinary people have any idea of the number of jobs in their local area being filled by foreign workers. Many low-income workers, particularly in the North, feel like their concerns about immigration are being ignored by a metropolitan, London-based political elite. Even if accurate statists about the impact of immigration exist, they are hidden behind a burdensome, time-consuming Freedom-of-Information process or buried deep in government reports filled with so much bureaucratic gobbledygook that you'll want to stop reading at the first page.
In the absence of easy access to accurate, balanced information about immigrant workers, people become vulnerable to large-scale misinformation from far-right hate peddlers, and self-interested clickbait journalists. The physically quite tiny far-right hate group Britain First is able to broadcast its wildly xenophobic distortions and partisan exaggerations to over one million people via social media alone. Comprehensive research on public attitudes to immigration in Britain has shown that many ordinary people "are grossly wrong on the scale of immigration, on average estimating that it is more than twice the actual level".
London's chatting classes may use this as a disingenuous reason to discount the opinions of the rest of the country: But if people are never provided with full, factual information because the political elite are afraid of people power, who can blame them for accepting xenophobic propaganda at face value? And when ordinary citizens are condescendingly denied a fair, democratic chance to influence immigration policies because London's self-righteous elites look down upon them as "uneducated" "bigots", who can blame them for turning to deceptive, hardline populists like UKIP, who at least pretend to "listen" and take them seriously?
A Philippines-inspired, transparent foreign work permit system would give people back trust in the fairness of the immigration system. They could see, with their own eyes, irrefutable proof in their local newspaper that foreign worker numbers locally are in fact not as high as the far-right rabble rousers purport. Reading the job descriptions, they would realise that most foreign workers are in fact doing vital, community-sustaining jobs in sectors, such as healthcare, where there is a dire shortage of skilled professionals. And in the unlikely case they are not, people would have, via the objections process, a direct way of raising their voice to put things right; Ensuring no rogue employer can secretly undercut locally resident workers' wages by deliberately bringing in unskilled, under-paid workers from abroad. The racists and extremists would no longer have the fertile soil of instutional disenfranchisement and informational disconnect to plant their ideology of hate in.
Sadly, in The Philippines themselves, transparency rules such as those on work permits aren't able to fulfil their full potential. The recently-elected, brutal wannabe-dictator Rodrigo Duterte is destroying the rule of law and subverting human rights - against a backdrop of long-standing, endemic official corruption that already debilitates institutions. But nonetheless we in Britain can learn from the ingenious, radical spirit of accountability that the Phillipine work permit rules represent as an idea. As Britain moves to leave behind the small-minded shackles of the EU and take its place in a globalising, multicultural world, there is absolutely no reason for not learning from international best practice standards. The Phillipine migrant labour rules also mandate that foreign workers have to transfer their special skills via training to least two local employees. This too has the potential to empower as well as connect both migrant and local workers. It can turn immigration from a percieved zero sum game into a clear win-win situation.
Real transparency around work permits would finally bring democratic decision making authority about immigration where it belongs: To ordinary people in local communities across the UK, rather than over-paid Whitehall bureaucrats with multiple postgrad degrees in law and jurisprudence. The Tory plans are a step in that direction, but more action is needed.
It's time to give people their voice back. In a democracy they are owed nothing less.