Ed Miliband promised new measures to prevent British people being “locked out” of jobs by foreign workers, including forcing firms to declare if they employ high numbers of immigrants.
Overseas-only employment agencies would be banned and an early-warning system set up to highlight areas where locals are “dominated” by an influx of overseas labour under the proposals.
While there cannot be set quotas on home-grown workers, urgent action is required to identify where British jobseekers need better training to compete, the Labour leader said yesterday.
Demanding that job centres be told of all firms where more than one in four staff is from overseas would form part of the new system to provide Whitehall and town halls with vital information.
Mr Miliband hopes to shift the focus of the debate from border controls, and what he says are ineffective Government caps on arrivals, towards the impact on people’s daily lives.
While restrictions on new arrivals, including caps on people from any new European Union member state, are necessary, reforming the jobs market is just as important, he argued.
Stricter enforcement of minimum wage laws and doubling fines to £10,000 would also form part of an effort to stop firms using cheap foreign labour to undercut domestic jobseekers.
Mr Miliband distanced himself from the rhetoric of his predecessor Gordon Brown, saying: “I am not going to promise ‘British jobs for British workers’.
“But we need an economy which offers working people a fair crack of the whip. The problem we need to address is in those areas and sectors where local talent is locked out of opportunity.”
He said Labour had to change its approach to immigration and recognise “the costs as well as the benefits”.
The last Labour government under Mr Brown became “too disconnected from the concerns of working people”, he said.
“We too easily assumed those who worried about immigration were stuck in the past, unrealistic about how things could be different, even prejudiced,” he said.
“But Britain was experiencing the largest peacetime migration in recent history, and people’s concerns were genuine.
“Why didn’t we listen more? At least by the end of our time in office, we were too dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price.
“By focusing too much on globalisation and migration’s impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people who were being squeezed. And, to those who lost out, Labour was too quick to say ‘Like it or lump it’.”
Mr Miliband said the numbers of low-skilled immigrants coming to the UK “are probably still too high and I would like to do something about it” but many of those arrivals were from the EU and so the answer had to lie in reducing the demand for cheap labour rather than any “blanket promise about numbers”.
That problem, he added, was worsened by Government proposals to relax employment laws.
“Of course overall numbers matter but it does also depend on who is coming in and what impact they are having,” he said when he took questions after the speech.
Mr Miliband, MP for Doncaster North, went on: “There is a sophisticated debate we have got to have, which is not a debate, in my view, primarily about overall numbers; it is about who comes here and what happens when they come here.”
He said people who expressed legitimate concerns about immigration should be engaged with, not dismissed as bigoted. “Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots. Not in any way,” Mr Miliband said.