Leading article: A fact of modern life


Tony Blair took a brave approach yesterday, when he made globalisation and immigration the theme of his address to the annual congress of the TUC. All right, it was his last address to the trades unions - the first of many "last" occasions if all goes to plan in the coming months - so he could afford not to court popularity. The fact that he was not expecting to receive an especially warm welcome anyway also meant that he could risk telling it like it is.

What he may not have calculated is that, on the subject of migrant workers, he was knocking at an open door, at least as far as the leadership of the TUC was concerned, if not the whole of its rank and file. To his credit, the general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, had already come out with a public call for union members to recognise that migration was a fact of modern life.

Given that it could not be halted, he argued, a wiser and more productive approach would be for trade unions to use their power to ensure that statutory protections were enforced. A similar view was enshrined in a formal Congress motion, supported - among others - by the shopworkers' union, Usdaw, and the construction workers' union, Ucatt.

Mr Barber offered an impeccable set of arguments to support his position, each of which we thoroughly endorse. First, Romanians and Bulgarians will be able to come to Britain as of right when their countries become full members of the EU. Any measures taken to restrict their entitlement to work here will only impose a delay and foster illegal working. In other words, let them come.

Second, the labour market is not finite. An influx of new workers does not automatically shrink the supply of work for those already here. New workers, as he says, go where there are job vacancies, not dole queues, and there are still shortages of skilled workers, including for those emblematic Polish plumbers.

Third, migrant workers are not to blame if they are being paid less than the minimum wage or lodging in substandard accommodation. The fault lies with unscrupulous employers and landlords, who should feel the full force of the law.

At a time when the employers' organisation, the CBI, is calling for curbs on migration, with misguided warnings about social cohesion, the TUC's insistence on regarding migrants as fellow employees is laudable. In judging that it can best protect the rights of its members by also defending the rights of the new workers, it is showing enlightened self-interest of the first order. The trades unions may not only have found themselves a new cause, but helped to reinforce their relevance in the globalised world of today.

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