Migrant workers face language crisis

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Drazute Zaronaite plays a key role helping migrant workers find decently paid jobs in rural Lincolnshire - where eight in ten people earn their living from farming, fishing and food processing.

As a qualified senior social welfare officer in Lithuania, she was well respected and well paid but she wanted to broaden her horizons. So, when Lithuania joined the European Union, Drazute took advantage of the new labour market mobility and moved to Britain.

Her job, which she loves, involves not only finding work for migrants but also helping them relate to people in the local communities. Everything seemed to be going fine. When Drazute arrived in the UK, she got a job and wrote to the Home Office to register as a permanent resident.

That was when her troubles began. So far, the Home Office has retained her passport for three months whilst it reviews her application. As a result, Drazute is unable to provide the proof of identity her bank requires for large withdrawals. With no passport, she cannot get a driving licence to replace one that expired. She could not change jobs - even if she wanted to - and she can't visit Lithuania (or anywhere beyond Dover), take on a mortgage, or register with a doctor. Despite her key role at work, Drazute is left wondering if her identity has been taken, too.

She told her story at the recent national conference on migration, organised by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education to mark the start of the European Year of Workers' Mobility. It illustrates a wide range of problems facing migrants and refugees.

The arrival of 280,000 migrant workers from the accession states, added to families of refugees and settled migrants, increases demand for over-stretched English for Speakers of Other Languages courses. In London, only a quarter of those who might require ESOL classes get them. More courses and qualified tutors are needed. This puts more pressure on the Learning and Skills Councils' adult learning budgets, which are already being cut at an alarming rate.

Until now, ESOL has been funded in the Skills for Life programme. It seems reasonable to expect highly skilled economic migrants, their recruitment agencies or employers to pay the full cost of language studies. However, what if they can't afford to pay fees up front? Will we need to recover costs once they are in jobs? What if they go home, after a period of work and study? Will we chase them for outstanding loans? To refuse highly skilled refugees access to the courses they need, or to charge the same rates for higher education courses as we charge overseas students stops many getting the very jobs that make full use of their skills - which this country needs. Tony McNulty, minister of state for immigration and citizenship, has highlighted the gap between current priorities for ESOL support and the practical help workers need, with the loss of skills essential to the UK economy. The current inquiry by Niace into ESOL will give helpful advice on the balance of needs for different groups and bring maximum benefit to individuals and the economy.

Refugees also have problems proving they are qualified - a difficulty everyone at the conference on migration recognised. People fleeing to escape persecution seldom arrive in the UK with a full portfolio of evidence of previous qualifications and experience. Unfortunately, employers look for UK references, and an account of the skills people have.

When migrants seek such recognition from professional bodies controlling qualifications, they are often set far more stringent tests than those set for "domestic" professionals without evidence of qualifications.

In theory, labour markets are open; in practice, this is rarely so. Yet there are many inspiring illustrations of work involving a range of agencies - education, health, welfare - in partnership, to overcome such problems. Alas, as the conference heard, they are usually backed by short-term finance. Population changes and increasingly global markets will lead to steadily rising levels of migration. This is not new - as Australians in Earls Court and the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets illustrate - but the pattern and scale are different. The UK needs good educational strategies quickly, if we to bring maximum benefits to society and migrants themselves, whether high skilled or low skilled. The message of the conference on migration was that there are green shoots, but we urgently need an overall strategy.

Things are starting to happen. Effective education and training strategies to help migrants and refugees into work are emerging from the Niace-led development programme, Progress GB, launched last June. Good practice has been identified which can now be shared. It shows common needs and challenges among the different groups - not least the need for good guidance for learners, employers and intermediary agencies. But overall a national strategy is needed, with cash to back it.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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