Devolve immigration and employment law to Scotland, argues new Common Weal paper

New policy paper advocates an immigration system for Scotland based around workers’ rights

IMMIGRATION AND EMPLOYMENT LAW should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, a new policy paper from the pro-independence think tank Common Weal has argued.

Published on 12 December and authored by researcher and Unity Centre volunteer Mark Butterly, ‘A Scottish approach to immigration post-Brexit’ advocates for new powers amongst a raft of proposals intended to address both the specific demographic and economic needs of Scotland, along with the looming challenges that Brexit poses.

Noting that a Home Office paper leaked to the Guardian newspaper in September of this year suggested that Freedom of Movement would come to an end by March 2019, the paper argues that the implications for Scotland of such a change would be “severe”.

“Scotland is more dependent on migration generally than the rest of the UK.” Common Weal researcher Mark Butterly

“Due to a combination of a lower birth rate and slower economic growth, Scotland is more dependent on migration generally than the rest of the UK,” Butterly writes.  

Devolving immigration to Holyrood would allow Scotland to address its specific needs, “challenge the terms on which immigration has been debated for years in the UK” and confront anti-immigrant rhetoric. Such a devolved system could also potentially break down the divide between the rights of migrant workers versus ‘native’ workers, and reframe the debate towards universal workers’ rights, Butterly argues.

Elaborating on this premise, the paper firstly proposes that Scotland retain Freedom of Movement post-Brexit, either through the European Economic Area (EEA) or some other means, and that workers’ rights within Freedom of Movement are expanded, including sectoral bargaining powers for trade unions and heavier fines and penalties for companies which exploit migrant workers.

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The paper also proposes that employment law be devolved to compliment and efficiently enact this potential new immigration system, and that universal rights installed and protected by any new legislation from the Scottish Parliament be expanded to non-EEA migrants, a demographic in Scotland roughly equal to half the size of Scotland’s EU national population.

Finally, the paper endorses the creation of a “just” system for asylum seekers and refugees, arguing for access to the mainstream benefits system and the closure of all detention centres.

“By combining together the devolution of immigration and employment law, a coherent universal-rights based approach can be developed which all workers’ benefit from.” Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray

Speaking upon the paper’s release, Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray said: “This paper proposes an approach to immigration which simultaneously would meet Scotland’s enormous demographic challenge – with the working age population projected to rise 28 times slower than pensioners – while at the same time addressing the real roots of fears about a race to the bottom between migrant and domestic workers: exploitation by employers who take advantage of weak workers’ and trade union rights to push down wages.

“By combining together the devolution of immigration and employment law, a coherent universal-rights based approach can be developed which all workers’ benefit from. This is an approach to immigration that neither buys into the myths about migrant workers destroying employment and public services nor ignores the genuine concerns people have about their jobs and standard of living.”

The paper was welcomed by Unison Scotland and the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), as well as echoing past calls for the devolution of employment law made by Scottish trade union activists.

“Without legislative pillars to change employment law and to improve employment law, we really are stuck.” Better Than Zero national organiser Bryan Simpson

Addressing the Scottish Affairs committee in October of this year, Bryan Simpson, national organiser of Better Than Zero, a youth-focused, STUC-launched campaign against insecure work, said: “Without legislative pillars to change employment law and to improve employment law, we really are stuck.

“What we’re having to do in Scotland, to be honest, is to circumvent those situations that exist. The Better Than Zero campaign, I would say, had to do direct action against employers that weren’t playing ball. And that was because of the lack of legislation that existed within Scotland.

“I would say it needs to be devolved, because we do not have the rights or ability in Holyrood to change those things. I think we would see a drastic change in, for example, self-employment definition if we had those rights.”

“The STUC will continue to argue against further restricting freedom of movement as it would seriously hinder Scottish production and growth over the coming years.” STUC General Secretary Grahame Smith

Commenting on the new report, STUC General Secretary Grahame Smith said: “The STUC firmly believes in the freedom of movement for people and has been at the forefront of advocating for migrant workers' rights and protections in Scotland. As well as enriching its culture, migration is vital for Scotland's demographics with many of our workplaces - from fruit picking farms and meat factories, to hospitals and universities - staffed by migrant workers who contribute a great deal to our society, culture, neighbourhoods, and economy.

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“The STUC will continue to argue against further restricting freedom of movement as it would seriously hinder Scottish production and growth over the coming years. It is current STUC policy that the UK immigration system should be reformed to allow for discreet migration policies in Scotland.  This should be the case irrespective of the final Brexit arrangements.

“The STUC welcomes Common Weal's contribution to this important debate and would be happy to work with them and other organisations to develop a more effective way in which migration policy for Scotland can be directed by the Scottish Parliament.”

Picture courtesy of War on Want

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