We recently held the second of our Brexit & human rights policy workshops with trade unions, civil society, and Labour Party staff. Our topic was immigration, and one of the key areas of discussion was possible variations on free movement, commonly called ‘free movement minus’.
Several proposals have been made for a UK-EU immigration system that would resemble free movement, but with more restrictions than the current system. These include the idea of only being able to migrate with a pre-existing job offer, or introducing sectoral and regional quotas for immigrants. The latter might allow the continuation of free movement in some parts of the country and for some professions, while restricting it for others.
These proposals do have some merit, particularly in political terms. They would help us to adequately address public concerns about immigration and demonstrate we’re complying with the result of the EU referendum, without completely dismantling free movement.
Nonetheless, these ideas have some serious human rights implications. For example, if people are only allowed to migrate with a job offer, then they’ll be dependent on their employer for the continuation of their visa. Imagine that scenario for a second – the same scenario, in fact, faced by many non-EU migrants. What if your employer refused to fulfil your holiday entitlement, tried to cut your salary, or started demanding that you work unsociable hours? Would you really complain if you knew they could revoke your visa at any moment? Would you speak out if you were discriminated against, bullied, or even sexually harassed? The additional power the employer would have over you might make you think twice, and that has huge implications for human rights across a whole range of areas.
It’s the same with quotas. What if someone got a job in one part of the country, but then needed to move – perhaps for family reasons – to another, and found that they couldn’t due to regional quota variations. Suddenly, we’re arguably – though indirectly – interfering with people’s right to free movement within a country, which is a fundamental human right.
More restrictive systems would also likely require more state monitoring – think ID cards, data sharing, etc. This might even affect British citizens if the government decided it should be universal.
This isn’t to say these ideas should be summarily dismissed. They may well prove more viable and desirable than the alternatives. But it’s important to understand that they come with their problems. As ever, there’s no magic bullet for the immigration dilemma.
Andrew Noakes is the Director of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights