No one knows how many people from the new central and eastern member states of the European Union (EU) have moved to Britain since they joined in May 2004. Estimates vary between 300,000 and 500,000, mainly Polish workers. Certainly in London, they seem to have fitted in very quickly.
But now the Tories and the bosses are beginning to make a fuss about them. Britain was one of the few existing EU members to allow citizens of the new member states free entry.
Last week the CBI employers’ organisation called for a “pause” in this open door policy when Bulgaria and Romania join the EU next year. Damien Green, Tory shadow immigration minister, has backed this call.
They are receiving a sympathetic hearing from New Labour, which always refuses to be out-bigoted by the Tories. Trade and industry secretary Alastair Darling said last Sunday that there will no open door for Bulgarians and Romanians.
This isn’t an easy issue for the government. Eastern Europeans are filling many of the low paid jobs on which a neo-liberal economy depends. The British Hospitality Association estimates that four out of five workers employed by central London’s top 25 hotels are migrant workers.
The bosses are split. The National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Fresh Produce Consortium, which represent packers, producers, and wholesalers, all heavily reliant on migrant workers, want the open door to be extended to Bulgarians and Romanians.
David Frost of the British Chambers of Commerce disagrees. He told the Financial Times he was concerned about possible tension if “we have increasing numbers of migrants employed, but at the same time the indigenous population is unable to find work”.
This is absolutely typical of the divide and rule policies that capitalism has always used to control the working class, playing supposed “native” workers off against migrants. Now the children of Asian and African-Caribbean immigrants are being encouraged to see Poles as a threat - no doubt soon it will be Polish “insiders” versus Bulgarian and Romanian “newcomers”.
Economic competition could nevertheless be used to divide different groups of workers. It is a striking fact about the British economy at the minute that both unemployment and employment are rising. In the three months to May the number of people claiming unemployment benefit increased by 90,000, but the number of people in employment rose by 59,000.
The increase in the size of the workforce reflects the influx of migrant workers, which coexists with rising unemployment. Nazis and racists complain that native British people are losing jobs to immigrants, though they must be confused by the fact that Muslim Asians suffer from high levels of unemployment, while the latest immigrants are blond, white and Christian.
Unemployment is certainly one of the failures that has been brushed under the carpet by New Labour. According to the International Labour Organisation’s definitions, there were 1.677 million unemployed people in Britain in the three months to June, 5.5 percent of the workforce.
They are particularly concentrated in the inner cities, in the north of England and in Wales. Those who suffer are victims of neo-liberal capitalism, which flourishes thanks to the destruction of whole industries and regions.
But the east European migrant workers are victims too, exploited thanks to neo-liberalism’s appetite for cheap labour. The FT reports, “The NFU says there have been signs that some workers from eastern European states are becoming more reluctant to accept the low paid seasonal work offered by the agricultural and horticultural industries.”
This is excellent news. Like the strike by Polish strawberry pickers earlier in the summer, it suggests that east European workers are beginning to resist their exploitation. Struggle against the bosses is the best way to defend the interests of all workers, whether they have lived here for six months or 60 years.