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Migrant workers - welcome up to a point

James Quinault, director for Managed Migration Strategy at the Home Office, will explain government plans to introduce a points-based immigration system to an audience of policymakers, leading researchers and stakeholders at an international conference to be held in Oxford on July 5th-6th, 2006.

Migrants now make up over 12 per cent of the work force in high-income countries, and are employed across a range of occupations, from medicine and IT to low-skill jobs such as cleaning, hospitality and food processing, that are often shunned by local workers. The government plan to replace today’s complex system of 80 different permits and entry schemes with a single “entry through skills” system aims to restrict entry to those whose skills will benefit the UK.

The proposals have been generally well received but some critics claim they will increase exploitation and human trafficking. Their implications will be debated at the annual conference of the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at Oxford University.

‘One of the key questions is whether employers will, as the government expects, choose to employ workers from the new EU member states rather than non-EU nationals for low-skilled jobs. If not, will employers continue to illegally employ non-EU migrants in jobs that offer low wages and poor employment conditions? ’ says Dr Bridget Anderson, senior researcher at COMPAS.

Dr Martin Ruhs, an economist at COMPAS, will tell the conference that discussions of “illegality” in the employment of migrant workers often fail to distinguish between illegal residence and illegal working. As a result, there is little discussion about the situation of migrants who are residing legally but working in violation of the employment restrictions attached to their immigration status. ‘Our research has shown that such migrants – and their employers – often see themselves as bending rather than breaking immigration rules’, he explains. ‘Migrants can provide employers with a highly desirable flexible labour force. They are easy to hire and fire, and eager to work long hours, so employers are sometimes willing to turn a blind eye if they break the employment restrictions attached to certain types of immigration status.’

Viviane Abayomi, a migrant domestic worker, who has been involved with the charity Kalayaan for many years and is an active Management Committee Member, will argue that the proposed reforms seem to contradict the government’s claimed aim to prevent trafficking. ‘Migrant domestic workers (MDWs) are dependent on one employer for their immigration status, their housing and their employment. Their employer is also usually the main source of information on their rights and their situation in the UK. The new rules would mean MDWs would be unable to leave a situation in which they are being exploited without losing their legal status,’ she says.

The opening day of the conference, International Labour Migration: In Whose Interests? will focus on trends and impacts of labour migration in both receiving and sending countries. Speakers include Phil Martin, University of California, Christoph Dumont, OECD, Jonathan Portes, Department of Work and Pensions and Ali Mansoor, a lead economist at the World Bank. A wide range of research papers from universities in the EU, North America and other countries will be presented at workshop sessions on both days of the conference. The workshop topics will include: the impact of European migration policies; guest worker programmes; gender and international labour migration; agencies; and rights, statuses and deportation.

Annika Howard | alfa
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