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article imageUnions embrace single market but torn on immigration

By Kenza BRYAN (AFP)     Sep 11, 2017 in Politics

A sea of hands went up at Britain's annual trade union gathering this week in favour of keeping close ties with the European Union.

Labour leaders representing some 5.6 million workers, meeting in Brighton for the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said they embraced the European single market and warned of the perils of a "hard Brexit".

But their reluctance to commit to the single market's requirement for the free movement of people illustrated the dilemma at the heart of Britain's labour movement.

"We were never starry-eyed about Europe," said Len McCluskey, leader of the TUC's largest union, Unite.

His union backed remaining in the single market with the caveat that employers should not be able to pay foreign workers lower salaries than domestic workers.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said the practice of employers advertising abroad for jobs they are not advertising at home should be stopped.

She also suggested options such as reserving public sector jobs for British citizens could be of interest.

The TUC in a motion urged Prime Minister Theresa May's government to "use all the domestic powers at its disposal to manage the impact of migration".

The RMT transport union, which campaigned in favour of Brexit ahead of last year's referendum, was the only one of the TUC's affiliated unions to openly oppose the umbrella body's policy on the single market.


It accused the EU of propagating "key anti-worker policies".

"It was (former prime minister Margaret) Thatcher that campaigned for the single market. We should be working for socialism, not collaboration with the bosses," said RMT representative Edward Dempsey.

"The European social model is always focused on individual workers rights and we should remember that we're a collective movement," he said.

- Blame employers, not immigrants -

Some leftists said they rejected the idea of staying in the single market altogether, and were furious that the main opposition Labour Party has called for doing so during a transition period after Brexit.

"EU liberalisation, allowing capital to flow out of the country, takes jobs with it and suppresses wages. Old Karl Marx worked that out a long time ago," said Kate Brown, 61, a former university lecturer.

Brown, who was selling a communist magazine outside the conference centre on Brighton's windy seafront, said she was frustrated at the enthusiasm the Labour Party and the TUC showed for the single market.

But Sally Hunt, head of the University and College Union, said immigration "enriched" British society and argued in favour of free movement of people.

"It is the employers who depress wages, not immigrants," she said.

Whatever the approach to Brexit, union leaders warned it should not come at the expense of workers' rights.

Many leaders also voiced fears that special executive powers in draft Brexit legislation put forward by the Conservative government could lead to workers' rights being altered without parliamentary scrutiny.

TUC leader Frances O'Grady warns that Brexit could become 'a race to the bottom'on wo...
TUC leader Frances O'Grady warns that Brexit could become 'a race to the bottom'on workers' rights

The new bill would repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, convert an estimated 12,000 existing European regulations into British law and end the supremacy of EU legislation.

Brexit could lead to "a race to the bottom" on workers' rights, O'Grady warned.

"We don't want Brits falling behind the rights that other Europeans enjoy."

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