A recent tweet highlighted a passage from a Tribune column written by George Orwell after the Second World War:
“The fact is that there is strong popular feeling in this country against foreign immigration. It arises partly from simple xenophobia, partly from undercutting in wages, but above all from the out-of-date notion that Britain is overpopulated and that more population means more unemployment.
…the most necessary step is…to raise the general level of political understanding: above all, to drive home the fact, which has never been properly grasped, that British prosperity depends largely on factors outside Britain…”
When Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP, stated this week that her department would be reviewing whether British jobs were going to British workers, or whether foreign migrant workers were preventing this, there was uproar from lawyers and business leaders (among others). This was an attempt by the government to acknowledge the populist view that immigrants are taking British jobs.
And to pacify that view, the Home Secretary has indicated that employers may be required to publish the numbers of non-British workers that it employs and also demonstrate that employers have done what they can to fill a vacancy from within the UK.
As soon as any politician raises the possibility that we might start to define our working population into those with British status and those without, I panic. Prior to Brexit, Nigel Farage raised the issue of removing nationality as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010. At the time, equality campaigners and lawyers reminded the news channels and social media that the aim of the race equality legislation in the 1960s was to prohibit discrimination which had been vocalised as “no blacks, no Irish” and to integrate the changing population of Britain.
Yet, we appear to be reaching full circle back to the days of Enoch Powell. Instead of raising the public’s understanding, our government is entertaining and encouraging xenophobia within its own populist echo chamber. The only way that the Home Secretary could enforce a policy of auditing non-British workers with a view to reducing numbers would be by allowing certain types of race discrimination. Could we be looking at British employment laws for British employees? PM May suggests otherwise when she emphasises meritocracy, but she better just check that the rest of her government are on the same page as her.
Employment lawyers, on both sides of the net, will undoubtedly stand unified against any proposal advocating race discrimination in the workplace or otherwise. The proposal simply has not been thought through as it fails to grasp that diversity is good for business. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.
The words of George Orwell, seventy years on, strike me as so salient in today’s post-Brexit Britain. The challenge for equality lawyers and campaigners is to make a business case for a diverse workforce in a language that is acceptable to post-Brexit Britain.