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It’s bosses, not migrants, that keep wages down

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With social care in crisis and unions falling for nationalism, Nick Clark explains why migrant workers are not to blame 
Issue 2820
Migrant workers employed by Barts NHS Trust on the picket line

Migrant workers from Barts NHS Trust striking to be brought in-house this year (Picture: Guy Smallman)

It’s all too easy for some trade union leaders to fall into a “soft” form of nationalism when they want to be seen to be taking a stand over pay, jobs or services. Take the GMB union’s recent response to a crisis in social care—where pay for carers is so low it’s caused a shortage of workers. With half of workers in care homes earning less than the salary for entry-level supermarket jobs, the social care workforce is short of some 165,000 people.

The GMB’s response? “PROPER CARER PAY SOLUTION TO STAFFING CRISIS—NOT OVERSEAS HIRING SPREE” it screamed in a press release last month. Its complaint was that Tory health secretary Steve Barclay had floated plans for an “overseas recruitment hub” to plug the gap before winter.

“Instead of touring the world for people to fill the 160,000 vacancies in social care, the government should ensure our carers already working here get a decent wage they can live on, starting with a minimum of £15 an hour,” said GMB general secretary Gary Smith.

Somehow, in the perspective of Smith and the GMB, hiring workers from abroad is in direct opposition to raising workers’ pay. That’s despite it supporting migrant workers’ strikes when it thinks they can win. The biggest danger of its latest grievance is that it’s divisive—and, worse, encourages racists.

It’s a “softer” version of the “British jobs for British workers” slogan that seeped into parts of the union movement around 2009. Beginning with a speech by then-Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, it became the demand of a series of construction walkouts—and encouraged Nazis in the BNP. Smith isn’t quite so on the nose, but the sentiment is still there and it’s no less dangerous.

 If migrant workers are presented as a barrier to pay rises, then a pay campaign could end up with demands to keep them out. Despite this, union leaders sometimes like to toy with the idea that migrant labour undercuts pay. It’s not true. Repeated studies—from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, and UCL and LSE universities—in the past decade all found migration has a small or no impact on wages.

When bosses in a number of industries found themselves with a shortage of workers—in many cases a shortage of migrant workers—they didn’t lift wages. That points to the real question behind low pay—profit, and the methods bosses use to squeeze wages. In social care, the pay and staffing crisis has much deeper roots.

It’s built into a privatised system that farmed out care to profit-making companies, which paid all their workers the bare minimum. The fact that care workers’ wages remain so low despite a labour shortage should prove that a lack of migrant workers doesn’t lead to an increase in pay. Even as their industry faces a severe crisis, care bosses still won’t raise wages. 

Their profit margins come before all else. Instead, migrant workers are at the forefront of the battle to make them pay up.  Strikes by outsourced migrant workers employed by Barts NHS Trust in hospitals in east London earlier this year are just one example.

If 2021 proved that labour shortages don’t lead automatically to higher wages, 2022 is starting to show that struggle can. That struggle works best when workers are united—not pitted against one another. Let’s step up the pressure for united and escalating strikes.

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