Socialist Worker

Capitalism and migrant labour

There is a contradiction at the heart of our rulers' attitude to migrant workers, argues Matthew Cookson

Issue No. 2049

Migrants are exploited

Migrants are exploited

'More migrants please' – so read the headline of last week's Investors Chronicle magazine.

A large section of the British ruling class wants more migrant workers to boost profits by filling the gaps in Britain's low wage economy.

The last few years have seen thousands of workers from eastern Europe and beyond come to Britain to take up the jobs with the worst pay and conditions.

Because of the obvious benefits of this immigration you might think that nation states would welcome migrants with open arms.

But there is a contradiction at the heart of capitalism's attitude to the movement of workers around the globe.

While the system needs migrant workers, nation states routinely treat new arrivals abysmally, with racism and appalling conditions.

This is clearly what is happening in Britain.

Many capitalists and politicians want to attract cheap flexible workers who are not represented by trade unions, have minimal rights, and who can be easily thrown out if economic conditions change.

Those who run society don't see these people as human, but as profitable cogs in a machine.

The system doesn't just need workers – it also needs a labour market, where workers are forced to compete for jobs. This requires a division and a hierarchy in the working class.

The hierarchy runs from workers with full legal rights through varying degrees of immigration status that make the worker less secure.

At the bottom are 'illegal' immigrants whose status removes their legal right to work altogether, opening them up to the worst forms of abuse.

It also benefits the bosses to ensure there is a division among workers. This creates a handy scapegoat at times of economic or social crisis.

Karl Marx, writing in 1870, described the consequence of such a division between different groups of workers when Irish immigration was the main source of migrant labour in Britain.

Marx wrote, 'The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation.

'The Irishman pays him back with interest. He sees in the English worker at once an accomplice and a stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland.

'This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers – in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class.

'This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.'

From its birth, capitalism has needed huge migrations of workers to feed its expansion.

From the industrial revolution in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries to the Chinese boom of today, workers have left their homes and moved to work in huge factories in cities and towns.

Often this migration has meant crossing national borders in the search for work.

Think of the Irish workers coming to Britain in the mid-19th century, or the workers from all over the world that built the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

International migration creates a working class in each state that is united by its shared experience of exploitation, but divided by race and nationality.

This creates the potential for conflict, but also for solidarity within the working class.

The last 200 years are full of examples of workers uniting together in a common struggle. Britain today is no different.

Construction workers at Cottam power station in the East Midlands struck unofficially last year against poor treatment of migrant workers.

A number of unions have been campaigning for the rights of migrant workers, such as cleaners in London and food pickers around the country.

Socialists have long argued that people should be welcomed to Britain.

Many people see through the racism that lies behind the attempts to divide the working class.

They see that it is the capitalist drive for profit that is the problem, rather than migrant workers themselves.

Workers of all kinds will always be on the receiving end under capitalism.

It is only by uniting that we can challenge the capitalist logic that people are there to be used, abused and then thrown on the scrapheap – whether in this country or another.

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Article information

Tue 1 May 2007, 19:22 BST
Issue No. 2049
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