Socialist Worker

Why the system depends on migration and racism

by Siân Ruddick
Issue No. 2193

Capitalism needs workers to survive – but the bosses hate paying for them.

Competition between bosses means they are always looking for ways to cut spending, maximise profits and get ahead of their competitors.

Many see migrant workers as a source of cheap labour. They recruit migrant workers, try to impose lower wages on them and hope they will settle for fewer rights than “indigenous” ones.

Yet if migrant workers are so useful for the system, why do governments, bosses and the right consistently attack them?

The reason is that those at the top of society have a contradictory attitude towards immigration.

The bosses need a reliable flow of workers – but they want them to be disposable.

Anti-migrant and racist ideas help create a situation where it’s seen as acceptable for bosses to throw certain people on the scrapheap. Having a pool of migrant workers that they can hire and fire as they please is useful.

Racist ideas also divide the working class as a whole and make it easier for the bosses to carry on exploiting all workers.

Migration isn’t new, and nor are attempts by capitalists to set one group of workers against another.

Karl Marx described how this happened in the 19th century, when Irish workers were the main source of migrant labour in Britain.


He 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.”

He went on to say, “This antagonism is kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers – in short by all the means at the disposal to the ruling class.

“This antagonism is the secret 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.”

As capitalism has grown, it has transformed the lives of billions of workers and has pushed more people to move across the globe.

It is in the bosses’ interest to have a “flexible” workforce. At times of boom, bosses compete for employees. They want workers to be able to move to where they are when they need them, whether that means moving within countries or between them.

Look at the experience of Chinese workers in recent decades. Integration into the world economy revolutionised China’s economy and the lives of its workers.

Industrialisation and increased production of goods for export sucked millions of Chinese workers into the cities from the countryside to work in factories.

But now economic crisis has hit and many are finding themselves cast aside. Thousands have moved back to the countryside.

The needs of capitalism shape where and how people live.

Migrant workers form part of the labour market in which workers compete for jobs. They can have specific economic benefits for the “host” country, which often doesn’t have to pay for education or training.

Bosses want migrant workers, but only on their terms. At times of recession, when capitalists are pulling back on investments and production, they want to be able to get rid of people easily.

Propaganda against migrants helps to justify laws that entrench the vulnerability and lower status of migrant workers.

These things, of course, hit migrant workers hard. But these ideas divide workers as a whole against each other.

Ultimately, bosses want all of us to be disposable. They are constantly pushing for harsher laws to limit workers’ ability to defend their rights and demanding greater “flexibility”.

They hate the fact that we have any rights at all. If bosses get away with treating migrant workers as “lesser”, it encourages them to go on the offensive against everyone.


Racism and anti-migrant propaganda is also useful for governments wishing to deflect attention from their own failings. Migrants can be a useful scapegoat for our rulers.

Of course, anti-migrant propaganda isn’t directed at all migration. In Britain, people with money – “investors” – are welcomed into the country.

And bosses are free to move their factories around the world in the name of profitability.

The propaganda against migrants is focused on workers – because it is based on the bosses’ agenda.

Workers don’t escape the contradictions of the system they live under. On one hand, racism and nationalism can divide them.

But on the other hand, workers of every country have a common experience of exploitation and struggle that unites them.

Migrant workers aren’t simply victims of greedy bosses. They have played a key part in struggle against those bosses, and in doing so have strengthened the entire working class.

Class struggle can make the divide between all workers and the bosses sharper, and can overcome the false divisions that our rulers have created.

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Article information

Tue 16 Mar 2010, 19:38 GMT
Issue No. 2193
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