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UK Unions Say English Language Requirement Discriminatory

Tens of thousands of immigrant workers will be forced to learn English before they are allowed into Britain under a plan presented Monday by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. But the workers unions say this requirement, if implemented, would be discriminatory. Tendai Maphosa has more on the unions' response in this report for VOA from London.

The rules, expected to reduce the number of people entering Britain by at least 35,000 a year, will affect those from countries outside the European Union who are seeking to work and settle permanently in Britain.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the move at the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella group representing Britain's workers unions.

"Let me add for those who come to Britain to do skilled work we will first require you learn English, a requirement we are prepared to extend to lower skilled workers as well," he said.

The government says about a third of the 96,000 skilled migrants who entered Britain from outside the European Union last year would not have been able to show that they could speak English well enough to pass the equivalent of a high school exam.

Under the government's new system, there are three work categories for immigrants coming to Britain from outside the European Union - highly skilled, skilled, and low-skilled workers. The first two groups eventually can settle permanently in Britain; the third group cannot.

Owen Tudor of the Trades Union Congress says this is discriminatory, because it only applies to workers from outside the European Union. He says it is also important for foreign workers to learn English so they can integrate into society and understand health and safety signs at work.

Tudor added it would also protect them against exploitation and enable them to join unions.

"I think it will not help to develop community cohesion by keeping some people out and letting some people in on the basis of their knowledge of English," he said.

Tudor said he would rather see the government restore funding for teaching English to foreigners, which he says the government has been cutting. He said employers also have a role to play to ensure that the staff they recruit has the opportunity to learn English so they can integrate into society.

The British government is also reviewing whether the new restrictions should be extended to low-skilled workers, such as fruit pickers, even though they are not allowed to settle permanently in Britain. The new rules have a handful of exemptions, including international soccer players signed by Premier League clubs who will be allowed in for "practical reasons."