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Migrants and wages

This article is over 17 years, 5 months old
Simon Basketter debunks the myth that immigrants drive down workers’ wages, and outlines the socialist tradition of fighting for unity against racism and capitalism
Issue 2026
Cultural patchwork:Jewish refugees in the 1890s found work in Britain as tailors in the East End of London
Cultural patchwork:Jewish refugees in the 1890s found work in Britain as tailors in the East End of London

Newspapers last week wanted us to panic about the 64,000 workers from eastern Europe who came to Britain last year. We are apparently supposed to be less concerned by the 68,000 people who came from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – and we are expected to ignore the thousands of people from Britain who left the country.

Such scare stories against eastern European migrants are based on racism – they attempt to divide workers in order to weaken them and exploit them more effectively.

But those bosses and politicians opposed to further immigration cannot openly declare that they are out to split the working class. So they phrase their opposition in terms which can have wider appeal, such as the claim that the arrival of immigrants holds down wages for workers already here.

If a Polish worker will work for £6 an hour on a building site, the argument goes, then the employer will not take on present workers at the present going rate of, say, £8 an hour. So wages fall.

Common sense?

Yet there is little basis for this “common sense” notion that wages are lowered by migration. “Immigration is found to have, if anything, a positive effect on the wages of the existing population,” says research based on four reports commissioned by the home office in 2003.

“Using the most robust data source available, an increase in immigration of 1 percent of the non-migrant population leads to a nearly 2 percent increase in non-migrant wages… International evidence on this issue shows that migrants do not have large negative effects on either wages or unemployment of the domestic workforce.”

The Economist magazine looked at the US situation earlier this year. “None of the studies is decisive, but taken together they suggest that immigration, in the long run, has had only a small negative effect on the pay of America’s least skilled and even that is arguable,” it argued. “If Congress wants to reduce wage inequality, building border walls is a bad way of going about it.”

Some studies even suggest that immigration is linked to rising wages for all workers. But there is no necessary causal connection between immigration and rising wages, just as there is none between immigration and falling wages.

In the 1930s there was virtually no immigration into Britain – yet there was mass unemployment and poverty. In the 1950s and 1960s British businessmen and government ministers (including racists such as Enoch Powell) actively recruited migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent – yet workers wages rose throughout those decades.

In the 1980s under a Tory government the number of families living below the poverty line rose by 60 percent. Yet for most years during this decade, more people left the country than settled here – and in the other years net immigration was just a few thousand.

Immigrants tend to go to countries where there are jobs available and the economy is growing. In such situations there is a battle over the fruits of expansion. For example, the press often claims that immigrant workers have driven down wages in the construction industry by half. The reality is that wages across the construction industry are rising, even for the lowest paid.

There is a battle over wages in construction, but it is not due to migration. It stems from construction bosses trying to use unregulated workers (of whatever origin) and subcontracting work in order to avoid health and safety regulations and taxes.

Bosses will always pay as little in wages as they can, in order to boost their profits. Firms compete with one another for market share and profits. If a company can reduce its outgoings by bringing in workers who will do the job for lower wages, then it will do so.

But this is not the fault of immigrant workers – the bosses are to blame. Those who seek to strangle the supply of new labour are aiming at the wrong target. If the logic is to hold down the supply of workers, then why not move on to driving women out the workforce, or previous immigrants, or people who do not have British relatives going back six generations?

One factor that increases the likelihood of migrant workers earning lower wages is the very set of regulations used to control their migration.


Even immigration controls that allegedly clamp down on abuse and exploitation of migrant labour can encourage workers who were already exploited to collude with their employers, to have a common interest with them in evading the authorities.

This is because people avoid reporting that their employer is beating them, or not giving them any money, because doing so increases the risk of them being deported. Introducing quotas simply encourages migrant workers to take low paid illegal jobs that aren’t counted as part of the quota.

The reality is that it is division among workers that drives down wages. If immigrant wages are held down by an anti-immigrant climate, it is easier for bosses to force down everyone’s wages.

The neoliberal dream of “flexible labour markets” is for a pool of workers that are instantly available – but also instantly sackable. It’s not just about migrants, it’s about using the labour market to make as much profit as possible – although it is migrants who are more vulnerable to exploitation.

This is not some new phenomenon, but a fundamental feature of capitalism. Today workers face intensified attacks in the name of neoliberalism. This is characterised by attempts to raise profits through increased “flexibility” in all areas – flexibility for bosses to hire and fire workers, to obtain cheap labour, to grab cheap materials and to slash the welfare state.

The result for millions of workers in this country – and hundreds of millions across the globe – is “flexploitation”, casualisation and insecurity.

Such precarious existence was noted by Karl Marx, who analysed the existence of the “reserve army of labour”. This pool of insecure workers keeps costs down and can, in some circumstances, be used as a weapon against other workers.

Whenever there is unemployment or a potential source of new labour, there are “too many” workers. Not too many in terms of a decent society, but too many given the present punishing number of hours worked, the present priorities determined by capital, and the present level of welfare services.

This reserve army of labour can be used to hold down wages and to threaten workers who want to fight back. “If you don’t like it, there’s someone we know who will do the job,” is the bosses’ refrain.

The perpetual presence of a pool of workers – unemployed, working part-time but wanting full-time work, working in jobs that they know might be lost to outsourcing, or working in jobs that are especially sensitive to recessions – is central to the neoliberal project.

How the labour movement has dealt with immigration

The key question for socialists is the battle over the conditions of all workers in the labour movement. Historically the labour movement has shown two distinct attitudes to this question.

In particular, it has always been necessary to fight within the labour movement against the idea that immigrants are responsible for deteriorating conditions of workers.

In the 1890s in Britain, Jewish workers campaigned against the TUC because the unions claimed that they were lowering wages.

Jewish refugees were simultaneously accused of taking British workers’ jobs and of living on welfare – exactly the same racist mythology that we hear about migrant workers today.


The official trade union movement repeatedly blamed immigrant workers for growing levels of unemployment within the British economy.

From 1892 onwards the TUC called for a complete halt to immigration. In London, dockers’ leader Ben Tillett told migrant workers, “Yes, you are our brothers, and we will do our duty by you. But we wish you had not come.”

But the left was able to shape the debate. Strikes by Jewish tailors in Leeds showed the potential that existed for building united working class opposition, not only to racist agitation, but also to the growing offensive against working class living standards.

As part of that campaign the workers launched, at a meeting addressed by Eleanor Marx, a pamphlet which argued that low wages in the textile industry were not caused by Jewish tailors, but were the product of a systematic drive by textile bosses to accumulate profits.

In a similar way, at the end of the Second World War thousands of Polish workers were brought in to Britain to work in the mines.


There was opposition from the right of the labour movement, which argued that there had to be quotas of Polish miners, and Poles should be sacked if there were British workers to do the job.

In contrast, the left agitated over the issue of cutting the working week – and won. The miners, alongside the Polish workers, achieved a five-day working week.

Fortunately today unions such as the T&G and GMB are mobilising to recruit and organise the new migrant workers from eastern Europe.

What we need is a struggle by the labour movement to improve all our conditions and wages – a fight against the ravages of both neoliberalism and racism.

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