The Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Frances O’Grady has launched a fresh attack on Theresa May’s proposed crackdown on EU migrants, saying that it would damage Brexit talks and scapegoat the vulnerable.
“The problem is that weak politicians like using migrants and other vulnerable people as human shields for their own failings,” she said in a wide-ranging conversation with The Independent.
“Obviously Michel Barnier (the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator) can speak for himself, but if I was sat on the other side of the negotiating table and I saw the Government paper that’s been leaked, and I were trying to look at what the future is going to look like – not just for EU migrants here, but Brits abroad – I would not see it as a constructive contribution to that negotiation.
Ms O’Grady was speaking as her organisation released the results of a survey showing that a shocking one in eight workers are skipping meals to make ends meet, while one in four wouldn’t be able to cope with an unexpected £500 bill and one in six go without heating in the cold.
The survey of 3,287 working adults also found close to half (44 per cent) are worried about meeting basic household expenses such as food, transport and energy, while more than a third (36 per cent) think cost of living pressures are increasing.
“There is plenty that the Government could do to tackle that now. The first is to stop the cuts and the awful cap on public sector wage rises.”
She added: “The working poor is becoming a very big group. More and more people are stuck with more and more unsecured household debt, and some of us remember that if you simply transfer the banks’ debt to private households they are not going to be spending in shops or businesses locally. They are going to ratchet up more and more debt. They are living beyond their means because their means are not good enough.”
However, she said it was quite wrong to blame these pressures on migrants, whether from the EU or elsewhere.
“I’m always worried when politicians of any party in any country look to scapegoat the most vulnerable for their own failings,” she said. “Nobody is nicking jobs.”
Ms O’Grady said it was true that some communities “are worried about the lack of council homes, particularly for their grown up children”.
“They are worried about what happens to their pay packets and they are worried about a living standards squeeze.”
However, these problems, she argued, were the fault of the UK Government and not of migrants.
The TUC boss called for pragmatism on the subject of Brexit, but also an end to the use of EU citizens living here as “bargaining chips”. Guaranteeing their rights, she said, would demonstrate good faith on the part of the UK.
“It’s almost like they are playing at negotiations. Negotiating is our day job. We do know a bit about how to bargain, and it is not just a case of saying I want. It is about finding common ground: on looking at what you can agree. It’s a good idea to start on common interests.
“When it comes to Brexit, we are of our own school. The clear priority and test is that it protects jobs, and offers frictionless barrier-free trade. Obviously, staying the single market is one way to do that – the easiest way.
“But we are open to ideas. What we are clear about is it has to protect workers’ rights and offer a level playing field with Europe. We don’t want to become the poorer relations. We don’t want Britain to become a sweatshop. We are united with our friends in Germany and Italy on that.”
Ms O’Grady previously belonged to the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission on Economic Justice, whose membership includes senior businesspeople, economists, fund managers, academics and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
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Yesterday, it called for fundamental reform of Britain’s “broken” economy, highlighting that wages have fallen to the lowest percentage of GDP (73 per cent) since the Second World War, and that recent economic growth has not been fairly shared.
Asked whether she thought Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell could take some of the new thinking embodied in the report forward, she said: “I think John gets that Britain does need an intelligent industrial strategy that is forward facing and is about the new challenges we face. I think he has got that vision.
“But we are a broad church and we will work with anyone. As a trade union movement, we also have published our own reports about the challenges facing us. We need to have a big conversation. What I really like about the Commission is that it is about the next 10, 20, 30 years down the line.
“Other countries, like Germany, think like that. We need to too. We need to invest more. We need to give workers representation on boards to provide a better level of challenge and scrutiny.”