Politicians say migrant workers are a problem. They claim they must be “tough” on immigration to protect workers born in Britain, who supposedly see migrants as an enemy.
But one group of workers in particular has smashed these myths.
Migrant workers make up some 23 percent of Britain’s passenger transport industry. The figure rises to 47 percent in London, where workers are striking to raise wages across the capital’s 18 bus companies.
Their fight punctures the myth that migrants drive down wages. Instead it shows that the bosses are to blame—and that a united workforce can fight to win better pay for all.
Alem came to London from Eritrea, east Africa, in 1998 and is a bus driver in south west London.
“In my garage we have people from Ethiopia, Ghana, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, South Africa and many parts of Europe,” he told Socialist Worker on the picket line last week.
“If they were doing things in my country that would create jobs and help us, such as building houses, nobody would want to come here.
“But because there is nothing there, we have to come here.”
Awaale, an east London bus driver, said that imperialism also forces people to uproot themselves in search of a better life.
He told Socialist Worker, “I was born in Somalia and my family came to Britain when I was eight in 1993. We were fleeing the chaos after US troops came to Mogadishu.”
Awaale said starting a new life in a different country can be difficult. “It was hard at first,” he said. “I had to learn English and to adapt to this completely new place.
“I didn’t do great at school. When I left I drifted about a bit and had a string of jobs that were short-term or really poorly paid. Luckily I learned to drive, and then a mate suggested I have a go at getting a job on the buses.”
Awaale added, “I don’t want to sound boastful, but I was a natural! It still took time to get used to the pace of London and the stress of the job.”
Conditions for bus drivers can be stressful—and bosses’ relentless drive for profit makes things worse. But there are plus sides too.
As Emilia from Hungary put it, “I really do enjoy it. I like the people I meet and the fact that I help people out with their questions as part of my job every day.”
Emilia told Socialist Worker she saw no future for herself in Hungary because “finding well paid work was almost impossible”.
She was also attracted by London’s diversity.
“I had friends who had already come to live in London,” she said. “They told me about how different life was—the size and all the different cultures and backgrounds. There is no comparison in Hungary.
“The more cultural difference the better I think. The more you can experience and the more opportunities it presents.”
Awaale said that working with people from different countries creates a “good atmosphere”.
“In our garage there are people from all over the world,” he said. “I met my wife at work. She’s from Ireland. Our child has an Irish name and a Somali name.
“People won’t be worried about that in Hackney.”
He added that there is a culture of looking out for people that comes from a feeling of “being part of a team of mates”.
“I try to help out the young drivers who are from Poland or somewhere like that,” he explained. “I try to remember how tough I found things at first here.”
But although many workers stick together, racism elsewhere makes life for migrants much harder.
“I have never faced racism in the garage,” Awaale said. “But it’s different with the police. “I was attacked on a bus by some white thugs. I’m sure the police would have treated it differently if it had been a white driver attacked by black people.”
Patrice, who came to work in Britain from Jamaica in the mid 1990s, has had a similar experience. He told Socialist Worker, “I’ve been cussed off and spat at driving a bus. People say, ‘Go back to your own country,’ but this is my home now.”
Patrice was eager to challenge the view that migrants cause economic problems. “People come to better their lives, to live and to work, and satisfy themselves with what little they have,” he said. “Immigrants don’t lower wages—it’s not our fault.”
The London bus dispute bears this out. Bosses are inflicting low pay, and are refusing to pay all workers the same wage for the same job. They have created a series of ranks and rates to try and divide workers—but it isn’t working.
Patrice has no time for the bosses or racists. “They look down on us and all they see is shit, but when we look up at them all we see is an arsehole,” he said.
Alem rejected the racist view that migrants come to Britain to claim benefits. “We come here to work, for our family and for our children to go to school,” he said.
Gonzalo, a driver working for Abellio, agrees. “When I came to London 17 years ago I started out working in restaurants,” he told Socialist Worker. “Now I’ve been driving buses for eight years, I should really have done something else by now.”
Gonzalo explained that he hadn’t always planned to stay in Britain. “I came here with the purpose of working for about ten years and then building a house back home,” he said.
“But Portugal is not such a great place to be right now with the economic problems. I’ve got two children who go to school here, they are now six and four. Basically this is home for me now.”
Gonzalo was frustrated at migrants being blamed for austerity or low pay. Like other drivers, he said the bosses are to blame.
“This company has big offices set up in Poland and Lithuania,” he said. “They deliberately go there to recruit people and pay them a lower rate. It is the companies, not immigrants, who try and undercut wages.”
Gonzalo said the problems facing workers, migrant or otherwise, are the same. “We’ve had prices going up for so long then they start cutting wages,” he said.
“This is the biggest problem—not immigration.
“A lot of people coming here are living in very poor conditions. I’ve seen five or six guys living in one room, maybe paying £30 each a week in rent. That is no way to live.
“My rent is £1,200 a month, I’ve got my children. How can I afford to live on a starter rate of £9.30 an hour for eight years?”
Alem said the work of all bus drivers benefits ordinary people—and they should all be “treated equally”.
“We need our rights—the rights of the world’s workers,” he said. “These companies are making millions from us all. They have to share it with the people.”