Immigration minister Liam Byrne has attracted further criticism after announcing a timetable last week for the UK to adopt an Australian-style immigration system.
Speaking in Sydney, Byrne revealed that a tougher, points-based scheme would come into effect in early 2008 to “manage migration to the UK more effectively”.
But unions and immigrant groups hit out at the proposals, saying they could lead to the exploitation and upheaval of foreign workers.
Alan Ritchie, general secretary of construction union UCATT, said: “The new scheme is deeply worrying and far more information needs to be supplied by the Home Office before it comes into operation.
“The new points-based scheme must not be allowed to become a backdoor method to recruit grossly underpaid migrant labour that will allow the British construction industry to abrogate their responsibilities to health and safety and employment rights – just so they can build the Olympics on the cheap.”
Amit Kapadia, director of campaign group the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme Forum, was angry that changes to the migration system were being applied to people who already held UK work permits.
“The UK Home Office is adopting the Australian points-based system but at the same time it is ignoring the fact that Australia does not believe in retrospective application of its legislation,” he said.
“A recent example is that when Australia changed its citizenship rules it did not apply the new legislation retrospectively to immigrants who got their permanent residency before the changes. The Home Office can also adopt such fair policies.”
Byrne was attending the fourth annual Four Country Conference on immigration hosted by the Australian government and also attended by representatives from the US and Canada.
Key issues discussed included the challenges of removing illegal immigrants, using new technology to facilitate global travel and the exchange of immigration information on war criminals.
Byrne said: “A new Australian-style points based system will be simpler, clearer and easier to enforce. Crucially it will give us the best way of letting in only those people who have something to offer Britain.”
The new system will allow migrants to come to the UK under one of five tiers, replacing more than 80 existing routes of entry.