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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 May 2007, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
EU targeting illegal employment
Two cocklers at work on the sands of Morecambe Bay, England (file image)
Twenty-one cockle pickers drowned off the UK's Morecambe Bay in 2004
European businesses caught employing illegal immigrants face jail sentences under new proposals from the European Commission to control immigration.

Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini also wants a five-fold increase in the number of spot checks on companies.

As much as 16% of Europe's business is done off the books, Mr Frattini says.

It is estimated that there are 3-8m illegal immigrants in the EU, a figure increasing by up to 500,000 every year because of easy access to illegal work.

The possibility of finding illegal work is the main driving force behind illegal immigration. The EU must act together
Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini
New penalties are also proposed for individuals who hire workers, such as cleaners.

Employers would have to check that anyone they hired had a residence permit, and businesses would have to notify national authorities.

Fines for offenders would include the cost of repatriating the worker, as well as payment of any unpaid tax or social security.

Weak penalties

Criminal penalties would be imposed on employers who knowingly hired victims of trafficking, who were caught hiring several illegal immigrants, or who were "particularly exploitative".

"The possibility of finding illegal work is the main driving force behind illegal immigration. The EU must act together," Mr Frattini said.

BBC Europe business correspondent Alex Ritson says there is little doubt why illegal workers are attractive for many companies - they earn a fraction of the regular wages and the penalties for companies caught breaking the rules are rarely severe.

But the proposals may face resistance from some member states, he says, as traditionally the EU does not interfere with matters of criminal law.

Mr Frattini said that the risk of getting caught employing illegal immigrants in Europe was "practically non-existent", because only one in 50 businesses was checked each year.

Under his proposal this would be increased to one in 10 per year.

Circular migration

The Commission says illegal migrants are most likely to be employed in construction, agriculture, housework, cleaning, catering and other hospitality services.

Officials say the sanctions are designed to hit employers who exploit people "for their own greed" - putting them to work unprotected with harmful pesticides, or on unsafe building sites, or forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day for negligible pay.

Three years ago, 21 Chinese immigrants lost their lives at Morecambe Bay in the north of England.

They were gathering shellfish on the mudflats for an illegal gang master but the tide came in suddenly and they drowned.

The proposed measures add to the EU's growing list of policies in the field of immigration, which are designed to attract skilled workers and other legal immigrants, while discouraging illegal immigration.

Another new proposal is to seek "partnerships" with third countries, providing their workers easier access to the EU job market in return for help to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

Mr Frattini also wants to encourage circular migration, where migrant workers return temporarily or permanently to their country of origin, taking their new skills with them.

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