United in Uncertainty: British Trade Unions (and other interest groups)’ Response
to Migration in the Context of Brexit
The process of withdrawal of the UK from membership of the European Union provides a significant context in which to observe how organised labour positions itself towards migration. Public concerns about migrants’ supposed drain on national welfare together with the wage undercutting effects of free movement of labour have indeed been key, if cetainly not the only, drivers in the Brexit vote.
The respective positions of employers and workers’ associations on the question of migration regulation before and after the EU Referendum have been relatively uncertain and shifting. The Trade Union Congress (2016) has focused on unscrupulous employers who “undercut local workers by exploiting migrants” maintaining a view of migrant labour as vulnerable employment (TUC 2008). Recently, while highlighting the positive view on the effects of migration for the UK economy and the benefits of keeping free trade tariff-free markets for UK-based workers and businesses, the TUC has fallen short of taking a stance on the relevance of free movement rights for EU migrants. Brexit indeed critically affects EU migrant workers by creating uncertainties for their continued labour market rights and social protections.
This paper, by discussing empirical material emerging from interviews and a roundtable with stakeholders from labour, migrant and employers’ organisations explores the persisting ambiguities and the main points of friction among unions and other interest groups on the question of the future regulation of EU labour mobility.
In dialogue with past literature on trade unions and migration policies in the US (Milkmann 2011) the authors also reflect on the causes and shortfalls of such uncertainties persisting in the labour movement: at a time of anti-immigrant backlash, British unions may seek to develop an alternative message and strategies to shift the political focus from the restriction of labour mobility rights to expanding socio-economic protections transnationally.