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Don’t blame immigrants—Socialist Worker takes apart eight of the lies used to divide us

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Issue 2445
Mostly immigrant cleaners won better pay and conditions by striking at Soas university in London last year
Mostly immigrant cleaners won better pay and conditions by striking at Soas university in London last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Do migrants worsen pay and conditions?

Some say immigration is good for the rich and the middle classes, but harms unskilled workers because migrants will work for lower wages. Even some trade unionists attack this as “social dumping”.

But studies have repeatedly found no link between migration and falling wages.

A study from the London School of Economics published last month found there is no match between immigration and low wages for unskilled workers across British counties. 

It is bosses who try to hold down pay to make bigger profits. For six million public sector workers, that means the government deciding to keep their wages low.

They want workers to blame each other because it keeps them divided. Workers who resist this division can win better pay for all.

Construction is an industry with a high proportion of migrants, but it is also one with rising wages.

The most powerful strikes in recent years—including those in the NHS—have all involved migrant workers organising alongside their non-migrant colleagues.

Immigrant workers themselves have led struggles that pushed pay up and improved conditions—such as these cleaners at Soas in the University of London (above).

Does immigration cause unemployment?

Newspapers such as the Sun do all they can to suggest that if you can’t get a job it is because of migrants.

But a London School of Economics report last month was clear that, “The evidence on the UK labour market suggests that fears about adverse consequences of rising immigration regularly seen in opinion polls have not, on average, materialised.”

Unemployment goes up when bosses throw workers on the scrapheap, because the system is in recession or because they brought in new methods of production.

Migrants travel looking for work and don’t go to places where they won’t find jobs. Some people come here, just as workers from Britain go to Germany or the Gulf.

When recession means there are fewer jobs immigration goes down.

This is what happened in the 1980s, the early 1990s and after 2008, unrelated to changes in immigration controls.

Are immigrants causing the housing crisis?

The Aylesbury estate in south London is up for demolition
The Aylesbury estate in south London is up for demolition

It’s certainly not migrants, who end up with some of the worst and most overcrowded housing.

There is a shortage of housing because not enough is being built. In 2013 only 135,500 homes were built—the lowest since the Second World War. And many of these are luxury flats aimed at the rich. During the 1950s around 300,000 homes a year were built—and most were council homes.

And Britain is full of empty homes.There are around twice as many bedrooms as there are people.

These include properties the rich use as second homes or just as investments whose price they hope will go up. This kind of speculation is one of the key drivers of the housing crisis.

Then there are 50 council estates in London alone marked for demolition and “regeneration” as expensive private rented homes.

The crisis is made worse by absentee owners and property companies. The press likes to focus on those based abroad, but there’s no shortage of British landgrabbers.

The problem isn’t where they come from. It’s that politicians have used regeneration and tax breaks to make our cities a paradise for landlords and spivs.

Are immigrants a drain on our public services?

All serious studies show migrants come to work, not live on benefits. By far the largest single item on the welfare bill is pensions—which accounts for 47 percent.Yet on average, migrants use public services less than non-migrants—and pay more in taxation.Migrants are always accused of using services that “we” have paid for.

People who realise this are much less likely to accept the government’s argument that there is no choice but to cut it.

The NHS would grind to a halt without migrant workers. It has relied on migrant labour from the moment it was set up.

“Health tourism” and “benefit tourism” are myths, as the National Institute of Social and Economic Research conclusively showed in 2013.

A tactic often used by the right is to mix up different categories of migrants—people born overseas, and people with foreign nationality—in order to confuse the figures. 

So a migrant who arrived in the 1960s and is now using the NHS more as they get older has been paying for it all their working lives. 

Recent migrants are already excluded from some benefits and NHS treatments.

This doesn’t protect public services. It gives an opening to right wing politicians who want to undermine them for everyone.

Will Britain soon have too many people?

Is Britain “full up”? The argument chimes with a certain  “common sense”—surely more people means less to go round.

But this isn’t how population works.

Some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Sudan in north Africa, have much lower population density than Britain, while richer countries such as Japan have higher population densities. 

Wealth is not shared out either fairly nor rationally. 

The rich get more than the rest put together, and billions are squandered on weapons of war.

And the pot of wealth is not fixed. Our labour creates wealth.

The level of public services available also shifts.

The government has decided to spend tax money on paying bankers rather than paying for schools.

That’s the real pressure—not population.

Will our ‘way of life’ really be ‘swamped’?

 Politicians constantly rehash Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 claim that people fear being “swamped by people with a different culture”.

Such a defence of “British values” is outrageous hypocrisy. 

Ordinary people have fought for democracy in Britain

and everywhere else, while Britain’s elite brought tyranny to millions.

The idea of a fixed British culture is just as fictitious. 

The customs of David Cameron’s toff pals are utterly alien to most people living in Britain. 

Culture, like language, is always evolving. Immigration has always been part of that.

And people know that food and music in Britain have been improved by immigration.

Even things seen as traditional, such as fish and chips, came with earlier arrivals. 

Most people are rightly proud of multiculturalism. But the reality isn’t just distinct cultures coexisting.

We create, and fight for, new ones together.

Hasn’t migration always had to be restricted? (Pic: Flikr: Danny Howard)

These were brought in alongside racist scare stories as part of a ruling class response to a wave of strikes, often led by migrants. Immigration controls haven’t always existed. There were no peacetime immigration controls until 1905.

Modern immigration controls were brought in during the 1960s to try and keep out people from Britain’s former empire.

At the time more people left each year than arrived. Yet successive governments brought in controls designed to keep out non-white migrants. 

All immigration controls have been about blaming migrants for social problems rather than controlling the number of people in the country.

As Britain became more integrated with the European Union it relaxed restrictions on people from other member states coming here to work. But this went alongside the creation of a “Fortress Europe”, which aimed to exclude other workers and paint them as a problem.

Britain’s government refuses to fund rescues for the thousands of desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean. The Tories want their deaths to be a deterrent.

People have always moved around in search of a better life. What’s barbaric is trying to stop them.

Can immigration controls ever be non-racist?

Many people who are horrified by reports of racism and abuse in detention centres still believe it is possible to have “good” immigration controls.

But complaints about immigrants usually focus on eastern Europeans, or black and Asian people—not Australians and Canadians, Germans or French people. 

It’s no coincidence that when immigration officers started doing “spot checks” at London Underground stations in 2013, they overwhelmingly targeted non-white people.

The original 1905 Aliens Act defined certain groups of migrants as undesirable. This made it easier for racists to target Jewish people.

Penalising immigrants is a recipe for discrimination. It gives a green light for racists to harass anyone they think doesn’t belong.

Immigration controls are racist. We should fight to scrap them all.

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