To read the newspapers you would think that migrant workers were a new phenomenon – and a problematic one at that. What concerns the media though is a certain kind of migration.
No one rages against the “flood” of foreign tourists or worries about being “swamped” by overseas students – although these are two of the largest categories of migrants to Britain.
It is migrant workers who are supposedly overloading public services, driving down wages and taking the British jobs that Gordon Brown infamously promised to British workers.
This hostility is nothing new. Our rulers have always tried to blame migrants for taking housing and overcrowding schools.
But migrants have played a key role in the British labour movement. Chartist leader William Cuffay, who founded a tailors’ union in 1839, was the son of a slave from St Kitts in the Caribbean.
The matchgirls and dockers who were at the forefront of establishing general unions in the 1890s included many Irish workers. The women who fought for union rights in the Grunwick photo processing plant in 1976 were largely East African Asians.
Now people come from a widening variety of places and often go to areas with little experience of migration.
Figures published by the regional TUC showed that in three months in 2004, job centres in Cornwall issued national insurance numbers to new arrivals from 57 different countries, including Poland, China and the Philippines.
Also new is the extent to which those who arrive in Britain work for agencies. Britain has more agency workers than any other European Union member state, but they have the fewest employment rights – a position that New Labour has fiercely defended.
What few rights workers do have are hard to enforce. This is particularly the case for those who may have poor English, no right to benefits, or who lose their right to be in the country if they lose their job – as those on work permits do.
For those working without legal authority, so-called “illegal workers”, there may be no enforceable rights at all. They face unpaid wages, massive deductions for rent and transport, tied accommodation, very long hours, sexual and racial abuse, and intimidation.
Government immigration rules determine who ends up in this situation – which countries of origin and what sort of work is acceptable.
Overseas students who work for over 20 hours a week, work permit holders who change employers or holidaymakers who overstay their visas and work are all considered “illegal”.
The uncertainty of their status and absence of rights makes workers vulnerable, and there are employers who take advantage. It is not migrant workers who drive down wages – where it happens, it’s their bosses.
Ministers purport to be concerned, but their emphasis is on enforcement of immigration rules by stepping up raids. The majority of penalties for employing workers illegally have been imposed on takeaway restaurants.
The Health and Safety Executive and Gangmasters Licensing Authority, who have some powers to protect workers’ interests, are starved of resources.
Yet in 2006 the government got over £230 million from fees for visas, work permits and workers’ registration covering workers from the eastern EU.
Racism is promoted between workers of different nationalities by some bosses. Immigration rules and the way in which they are implemented are also racist – one in two Nigerians who overstay their visas are pursued by what is now the UK Borders Agency, but only one in 50 Australians.
Unions can make a difference in reducing divisions, and in recent years all the major ones have taken steps to organise among migrants. There have also been a number of successful initiatives at grassroots level.
Migrant workers in warehouses, cleaning contractors and food processors have successfully unionised and won improvements. Both Unite and the RMT unions have had some successes with contract cleaners.
Most unions now prepare recruitment material in different languages – with Usdaw offering 35. CWU strikers used their translated leaflets during last year’s post dispute to persuade Polish casual workers not to cross picket lines and to join the union.
Unison has produced a branch handbook on organising migrants and a “myth-buster” aimed at its membership. In Westminster, central London, the Unison branch has organised traffic wardens and toilet attendants – almost all migrants and all privatised.
Unite has campaigned for limited regularisation for those working without official permission, and successfully for the right for domestic workers to change employers when faced with abuse without losing their right to be in Britain.
However, the unions’ focus on winning recognition offers little to workers who cannot wait to get their unpaid wages, or who are worried about denunciation to the authorities.
Employers have exploited competition among unions for members and recognition. In the US the slack has been taken up by “workers’ centres”, who have developed direct action tactics such as demonstrating on bosses’ lawns until outstanding pay was forthcoming.
In France, the sans papiers movement has fought for regularisation for undocumented workers. An effective strategy in Britain needs to combine these tactics with union organisation and opposition to the wealth gap that forces people to leave home to find work.
It should also avoid organising migrants into separate branches – this can at best have only short-lived success. If we build a movement based on solidarity, there will be no question of anyone driving down wages.
Nick Clark is a policy officer at the PCS union, writing in a personal capacity. He previously dealt with migrant workers’ issues at the TUC