From education to employment

unionlearn Director on the need for English training

A key challenge facing all levels of British society is the arrival of migrant workers from the new member states of the EU. The TUC welcomes them and works with unions to ensure that they are not exploited by rogue employers. Last month the TUC and unionlearn sent a team to a EURES-Job Centre Plus jobs fair in Warsaw in order to provide potential jobseekers with important information on employment rights, minimum wage rates, getting their qualifications recognised and English language courses.

For many of the 10,000 people who visited the two-day event, improving their English was considered to be an essential part of working abroad, helping them to work safely and enabling them to contribute effectively in their new workplaces. The availability of ESOL in the FE sector has helped not only to bring in these much-needed skills, but also to get the best out of these new entrants to the workforce ““ a big benefit for employers.

But with the Government recently announcing radical changes, such courses are at risk. It is proposed that free provision will be limited to the unemployed or people receiving income based benefits. This would mean many lower paid workers who are not in receipt of benefits would be left out in the cold. On a more positive note it is also proposed that employers will be expected to carry the cost of English language training where they recruit workers abroad.

Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary said: “Being able to speak English is crucial if people are to be safe and treated well at work. Not only is it essential in terms of knowing how to do your job, workers also need to be able to communicate with their colleagues and understand important health and safety information”.

“Many vulnerable workers who dont yet speak fluent English will be let down by this decision. If free language courses are to end, then the Government must do more to make employers meet the cost of training their employees. Sensible employers already realise the business benefits of having an English-speaking workforce”.

It is clear from a recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report that lack of English language skills can seriously affect health and even cause loss of life. Over 200 people are killed each year in accidents at work and over one million are injured. Think about it, if you are working on a building site and don”t understand when someone tells you to “get out of the way” you may not dodge that hod of bricks falling off the scaffolding. The report found that migrant workers were more likely to be involved in workplace accidents than UK workers, due to the longer hours worked, limited understanding of health and safety and lack of training.

These are all problems that unions have traditionally tackled and where they can work with migrant communities to build stronger workplace representation.

Migrant workers should be able to fully use their skills and not be stuck in low-paid jobs simply because of the language barrier. This helps integrate them into workplaces and their communities, as well as allowing them to develop and get better jobs. And of course we want to get them the best protection any worker can have ““ union membership!

ULRs are already brokering provision for migrant workers across the country and will have plenty to say if the new funding arrangements put low paid and vulnerable workers at risk. So let’s hope the forthcoming consultation process will enable unions to make their voice heard.

Liz Smith, Director, unionlearn.

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