LONDON — The British public would feel “betrayed” if immigration from the EU is not significantly cut after Brexit, the man running to be the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union said today.
Gerard Coyne, who hopes to be Unite’s next general secretary, told Business Insider that the number of EU citizens coming to work in the UK must be slashed.
“The electorate voted for controlled borders and we can’t go back and revisit that decision,” he said.
“They would feel betrayed if an alternative [deal] was put forward which was about retaining access without addressing control of borders.”
He said that Unite members who had backed Brexit in the referendum had done so because of concern about growing numbers of EU migrants.
“I’ve listened long and hard both to my members post the referendum and why in the main they voted to leave and it was overwhelmingly about immigration and control of borders.”
Coyne claimed that high numbers of EU migrants have damaged public services.
“What is very clear from discussions that I have had with members is that at a time of austerity they have seen how there has been a pressure on services locally and they do believe that there is a need to restrict those numbers.”
“Clearly [Unite members] are looking for a substantial restriction in [migrant] numbers.”
He also claimed that migration from the EU had led to wages being cut for UK workers.
“We have seen terms and conditions being eroded and undermined particularly as a result of agency and temporary workers being brought in [from the EU] at much lower rates of pay that has been beneficial to them but undercut and deskilled the workforce in the UK.”
“We have seen terms and conditions being eroded and undermined particularly as a result of agency and temporary workers being brought in [from the EU]
He added that he had personal experience of workers who had seen their pay undermined by immigration.
“In the agricultural sector, it is absolutely true [that wages have been undercut]. In the food processing industries there have been cases around that which I personally know of, but more generally there has been a process where agency and temporary workers [from the EU] have been used as a periphery workforce while the core workforce is constantly under a pressure.
“For example, if they were to take industrial action.”
He added that the increase in the use of European agency workers was “a direct result of a directive that came from the European Union”.
Coyne said he believed there was little chance of Britain staying within the single market while meeting public desire for migration control.
“We have to roll up our sleeves and get on with the job of realising that there is very slim likelihood of getting access to the single market and control of borders.”
He said that the government must act now to train up UK workers to replace those who in future would be denied access to work here.
“For too long employers have dealt with skills shortages by taking people down off the shelf from the EU.
“For too long employers have dealt with skills shortages by taking people down off the shelf from the EU.”
“And actually we have got a job of work to make sure we are investing now for the skills shortages that we have not just got at the moment but are going to face post the two-year negotiation.
“And if by some magic the government pulls some rabbit out of that allows some element of controlling the borders as well as access to the single market then what is the worst that we have done? We have made our economy more competitive and increased the skills of the workforce…
“So I just think we need to take action now.”
While Coyne said that migration to the UK had to come down he refused to say by how much.
“Realistically the numbers game has been bounced around and bounced around [but] there will continue to be skills gaps in certain sectors that we’ve got to work to address over a medium term period of time so I don’t think you can actually say that it is going to be this x number at x point.”
Coyne’s comments place him in opposition to the current Labour leadership who are still officially in favour of maintaining freedom of movement.
However, they follow similar comments by Unite’s current general secretary Len McCluskey and suggest a new anti-migration consensus at the top of Britain’s biggest union.
“Workers have always done best when the labour supply is controlled and communities are stable,” McCluskey said in a video to Unite members in December.
“While we must reject any form of racism, and help refugees fleeing war, we must also listen to the concerns of working people.”
In an interview with Business Insider today, Coyne accused McCluskey of colluding with Corbyn-supporting organisation Momentum in an attempt to stitch up the Unite leadership election.
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