Labour leader Ed Miliband has promised to deter firms from exclusively employing workers from overseas, admitting his party “got it wrong” on immigration when in government.
He said Gordon Brown and Tony Blair should not have allowed uncontrolled immigration from new EU states in 2004.
He also pledged to ban recruitment agencies which use only foreign workers at the expense of “local talent”.
But the Conservatives said Labour had “no credibility” on immigration.
In 2004, the government allowed free migration to the UK for workers from EU accession states including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
But its estimates that only about 13,000 people a year would come to the country were soon proved wrong, with a peak net migration figure, from the EU and elsewhere, of 252,000 in 2010.
Some countries imposed transitional controls to slow the speed of movement.
Mr Miliband said: “It was a mistake not to impose transitional controls on accession from Eastern European countries. We severely underestimated the number of people who would come here. We were dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price.
Two incidents encapsulated what many saw as the Labour government’s failure to “get” why so many people were worried about immigration.
In 2007 Gordon Brown promised “British jobs for British workers”. It was an impossible promise to keep, with the free movement of people within the European Union.
Ed Miliband acknowledged Labour got it wrong and in so doing alienated some of their core supporters.
“By focusing exclusively on immigration’s impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – whose living standards were being squeezed. We became disconnected from the concerns of working people.”
He said Labour had told people concerned about the biggest peacetime migration to the UK to “like it or lump it” and that the public had been “ahead of us” on the issue.
Many in the party blamed the effects on immigration, including the lowering of wages and pressures on social services, for the scale of Labour’s defeat in the 2010 general election.
He added that cutting numbers of immigrants was part of the solution but “not enough”. He also accused the government of being unrealistic in saying it will limit net migration to “tens of thousands”, as the vast majority of those coming to the UK were from EU countries.
Instead he promised measures including:
- Forcing medium and large employers to declare if more than a quarter of their workforce is foreign, so that gaps in training British workers can be addressed, allowing them better to compete
- Banning employment agencies from taking on only overseas workers
- Extending the scope of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to all sectors where workers are being exploited
- Setting up an early-warning system, run by the Migration Advisory Council, to highlight areas where the workforce is “dominated by low-wage labour from other countries”
- Identifying where British jobseekers need better training
- Tougher legislation on the minimum wage, with a doubling of the fine from £5,000 to £10,000 for those who break the law
He said he would not make “promises that can not be kept” on cutting immigration from within the EU, which is beyond the control of British governments.
But he would seek ways to “level” the playing field for British workers in the jobs market.
And he vowed that a future Labour government would introduce “maximum transitional controls” to limit migration if the EU expanded to include more countries.
Referring to the phrase used by Mr Brown as prime minister, Mr Miliband said: “We are not calling for ‘British jobs for British workers’ because you can’t do that and we shouldn’t promise it.”
The Labour leader said there was “nothing wrong with anyone employing Polish builders, Swedish childminders or French chefs”.
But he added: “The problem we need to address is in those areas and sectors where local talent is locked out of opportunity.”
Source: BBCSocial tagging: Policy