Will a work guarantee scheme help asylum seekers?

On Friday last week, Steve Kneale wrote about asylum seekers and work. Currently asylum seekers are legally forbidden from taking on paid work during what often turns out to be a lengthy process. During that time they are provided with Home Office accommodation and a very minimal allowance.  Many of us find this grievous.  Here we have people who often want to work but are not allowed to. I find this grievous for three reasons.

  1. Biblically we are called to have a concern for the poor among us to ensure that they are provided for.
  2. The Bible also talks about love and care for the foreigner or sojourner living in our midst
  3. The Bible also instructs us to see and encourage work as a good thing.

A good example of this working out in practice is the gleaning laws being followed in Ruth which enabled a migrant to arrive in the land of Israel, to be active doing something useful and so to provide for her family. In my opinion, asylum seekers should be allowed to work.

However, I disagree with Steve regarding his proposals for a Work Guarantee scheme.  This perhaps helps us to see some of the difficulties of trying to reach a Christian position on political issues and perhaps why despite the best efforts of some, there hasn’t been a successful “Christian Party” here.  It is one thing to say that Christians should have compassion for the poor and needy. I think that is fairly self-evident in Scripture. I think it is possible to argue the case Biblically for going a bit further in offering practical solutions to the issue. So, I do think that allowing asylum seekers to work is to some extent a reasonable implication and application of Scripture’s teaching. However, we are starting to push the limits there and I can understand the argument that it is best to wait until they have a legitimate claim to stay.

However, when we move beyond that, we move into specifics and mechanics and that’s where there is plenty of room for disagreement. To be clear and for the record here, Steve is not arguing in his blog piece that we must agree with his solution as Christians. He has put forward a suggestion which he has an opinion on about an issue that he cares passionately about. We are free to either agree with him or disagree with him on this. It’s important then for me to say here that pastors should be free to have opinions on the issues of the day and to share them.  I have to say this because there are some who think that all we should ever talk about on our blogs are obviously theological and Gospel issues.

Actually, I think it is a good thing that pastors on their blogs give an example of how to graciously engage with public issues. We are not compelled to agree with them because they are pastors and I doubt that anyone is going to be swayed by either Steve or me on how we resolve the fuel crisis, whether there should be a job crisis or whether there should be a fourth lockdown because we are pastors. They will weigh up our actual arguments accordingly.

However, things can go the other way and people can associate this or that party with a more Christian position. We can assume that certain moral issues like abortion are the domain of the right and I’ve heard people argue that we must therefore support right leaning parties. Such a view is particularly strong in the US with regards to support for Republicans.  Meanwhile others have argued that a concern for the poor is a left-wing thing and Christians cannot therefore in good conscience vote Tory and must vote Labour.

So, Steve’s argument for a Work Guarantee provides a useful example for how that can become tricky.  I agree with Steve that asylum seekers should be free to work. However, I’m not convinced with his assessment for where the problem is.  There are times when people have talked about asylum seekers “stealing our jobs” and I would expect that to be an issue during times of high unemployment. However, for much of the last 20 or so years we have been fairly close to what economists regard as full employment. Rather than there being high numbers on the dole there have in fact been shortages of people to work in key sectors.  We are seeing issues with that at the moment in transport and food processing.  So, migrant workers have often helped to fill job shortages in areas where there are not enough British people available, able or willing to take up the work. Of course, that can also become about suppressing wages but with employment laws and minimum wages in place it cannot be completely about that.

Furthermore, if the problem isn’t a shortage of jobs but a shortage of workers, then the challenge for asylum seekers is unlikely to be about finding jobs to do. Instead what they might find is that the jobs are not always in the places where the Home Office houses them and therefore the bigger issue may well be finding places to live close to where the work is.

The greater fear these days tends to be that immigrants will come to take our benefits. They are portrayed as cheats and scroungers in the media and the fear is that they will also put pressure on public services such as schools and hospitals. Therefore it is ironic that the rules actually legally insist that asylum seekers must depend upon hand-outs. If cases were resolved in a few weeks then that would be one thing but they are so often not. I know people who have lived here for 4 or 5 years or longer with a case still in progress.

So, I’m not convinced that Steve’s proposal is resolving a real issue. Moreover, I think there are further questions about the scheme. The proposal is that everyone is guaranteed a job, this includes the indigenous population. The result of this is that the idea of benefits is abolished. We are all workers and all required to do something productive with our days in return for which we are guaranteed a wage. The Government becomes the employer of last resort so that if we are unable to get work in the private sector, we are offered work by them for whatever they determine to be the minimum wage.

There are a few issues and questions with this.  The first is that we already know what the Government is willing to pay. It is willing to pay the current going rate for Universal Credit plus the other assorted benefits that still exist.  It isn’t in fact in the Government’s interest as a significant employer to increase the minimum wage and in fact it would be in its interests to take on employees on the lowest level of pay possible to suppress the wage market. Indeed, this seems to go against the idea of moving towards a high wage, high skill market.

In conversation with Steve, I asked what would happen in terms of the Government guaranteeing jobs. Would I in effect work for them but loaned to an employer with the prospect that the Government would pay whatever proportion of my wage that the employer could not?  That’s not far off what happened with the furlough scheme but there workers were paid to not work.  The risk there is that it becomes in the interests of employers to be dependent upon the Government scheme, in effect it is a form of back door subsidy which may lead to inefficiency and the ongoing survival of businesses that are simply not productive or economic.

The other alternative is that the workers are employed by the Government to deliver services for the Government. It is then the Government who are responsible as not just the employer of last resort but also the service provider and potentially owner of last resort.  Now, I guess that if politically your position is socialist leaning then that isn’t too problematic. Whilst not all forms of socialism are statist, there is a strong view within that tradition that the State should step in to employ people and to run industry.

The challenges to this are both economic and moral.  I won’t rehearse the economic ones here because they have been made many times over the years.  The moral ones are very simple.  The argument for limiting the state is that the Government should exist to serve the people not to lord it over them, control them or in any sense own them.  That’s rooted in Biblical principles too. When the State moves from this role of serving people, primarily through protecting then we begin to see a risk of dependency and control which puts people too far into the State’s debt.  Indeed, the idea of large numbers of people being on the Government’s pay role becomes particularly problematic in a democracy where those people are also choosing their government.

So I have concerns and questions about Steve’s proposal. I’m sure he has compelling arguments in support of it and would challenge the economic and philosophical presuppositions behind my concerns. However, this helps to demonstrate both why it is fine for Christians to disagree on politics and why healthy debate and conversation is both necessary and possible.