Socialist Worker

Britain’s hidden but vital workforce

The final column in our series looks at the role immigrants play in the economy

Issue No. 1962

The British media has plumbed fresh depths in the wake of the 7 July bombings.

Tabloids have run lurid headlines suggesting that “sponging” asylum seekers were to blame. Hints have been made that Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian shot by police, was working illegally in Britain. The implicit suggestion is that he should therefore be undeserving of our concern.

Immigrants have been a long-standing target of the right wing press. But two simple facts go unreported.

First, that the overwhelming majority of migrants to Britain have little choice but to work, often in the most terrible conditions. Second, that the British economy would all but collapse without their efforts.

The reasons are connected to the huge changes that have taken place in Britain over the last 20 years. The British economy has been tilted away from manufacturing and towards services industries.

In 1981, 35 percent of the workforce were employed in manufacturing. By 2004 this had shrunk to 20 percent, leaving three white collar workers for every manual worker.

While Britain has imported more manufactured goods than it has exported every year since the early 1980s, exports of services have been persistently larger than imports.

In New Labour’s more lurid fantasies, this transformation means the working class is now all but irrelevant — a gleaming, information based economy has emerged from the ashes of British manufacturing.

Everyone runs their own dot-com business from the comfort of their own home. A vast, contented middle class is believed to dominate politics.

As with most New Labour fantasies, the truth could not be more different. One recent academic study found that the shift in work produced what the authors called “job polarisation”.

Instead of everybody ending up equally highly paid and in equally pleasant middle class jobs, a small increase in the best paid and most agreeable work was overwhelmed by a staggering increase in the very worst and most unpleasant work.

In 1979, there were 926,000 people employed in the 21 lowest paid occupations, such as sales assistants, bar staff and waiters. By 1999, there were nearly 1.5 million people in similar jobs.

Unlike manufacturing, many services are not easily mechanised. An economy tilted towards the provision of services requires an army of workers prepared to perform the kinds of tedious, unimaginative tasks for as little money as possible.

“Flexibility”, as promoted by successive governments, is the means to achieve this. Attacks on unions and on employment rights have affected all workers in Britain, but it is those without any employment rights who are the easiest to underpay.

The necessity of filling low skilled and low paid jobs has created an enormous so called “black” economy. One estimate suggests that 13 percent of Britain’s GDP is accounted for by illicit work.

Foreign workers are hugely important to this sector — arriving unlawfully with the threat of deportation, hidden from the tax inspector and the benefits office, illegal migrant labour is exceptionally cheap and malleable.

Estimates of the number of foreign workers employed illegally in Britain vary between 500,000 and two million.

The dire conditions such workers face were graphically presented in a recent TUC report, “Forced labour and migration to the UK”.

In one case, a group of Eastern European workers were given false passports, told to work seven days a week for a year with no pay and threatened with physical assault if they tried to run away.

This work is integral to the economy, and the largest and most “respectable” high street names depend upon it.

An investigation by the Guardian found agricultural labourers paid £200 for 72 hours work, supplying Tesco with salads. The deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay 18 months ago were the direct result of the British economy’s dependence on “flexible”, illegal labour.

Socialists need to fight against the racism suffered by migrant workers, but also against the conditions they work in.

Building the unions, and fighting for unity between British born and migrant labour will help stamp out the most extreme forms of exploitation.

We should also push for an increased minimum wage, backed up by effective enforcement of pay and conditions.


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