By Joseph Choonara
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1890

Policy to divide and then to exploit

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
A GRUBBY row has broken out among government ministers over immigrant labour from the Eastern European states that are set to join the European Union (EU) in May. On the one side stands the Blair camp, which feels the most urgent priority is to cave in to the racist rantings of the right wing press-owned by such migrant billionaires as Rupert Murdoch.
Issue 1890

A GRUBBY row has broken out among government ministers over immigrant labour from the Eastern European states that are set to join the European Union (EU) in May. On the one side stands the Blair camp, which feels the most urgent priority is to cave in to the racist rantings of the right wing press-owned by such migrant billionaires as Rupert Murdoch.

On the other stands the group headed by home secretary David Blunkett, backed by the bosses’ CBI organisation. They think the main issue is allowing British bosses to exploit incredibly poor workers with no employment rights whatsoever. The differences are only of emphasis. Both sides routinely bow to the immigrant-bashers. Both want more freedom for big business and more restrictions on working people-whether they were born here or immigrated.

The tabloids have been attempting to whip up a racist panic about ‘hordes of people’ arriving in Britain from the new EU states. But the Home Office’s figures estimate that less than 13,000 people will arrive in Britain from the new EU countries each year-a tiny 0.02 percent of the population of Britain.

Immigrants have been a vital component of the workforce since the industrial revolution-plugging skills shortages and topping up the number of people prepared to perform unpleasant and low paid work. Despite that, each new group of immigrants have also been targeted as convenient scapegoats for the problems caused by the system-scarcity of jobs and housing, or the lack of resources in the NHS.

The splits in the New Labour cabinet reflect this contradictory picture of immigration under capitalism. Blair hosted a ‘summit meeting’ at Downing Street last week to resolve the row. After the meeting trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt revealed the compromise position, which called for ‘controlled and managed economic migration’.

She told the Today programme, ‘Where people want to come to work in Britain and help fill vacancies that otherwise mightn’t be filled, we should all welcome that. ‘What we don’t welcome is people coming simply with an eye on exploiting our benefit system.’

New Labour wants to attract cheap, flexible workers, who are not represented by trade unions and have minimal rights, and who can be thrown out if conditions in the labour market change. So it plans to deny immigrants access to unemployment or housing benefit if they have been in the country for less than two years.

And it wants to introduce a system of work permits and immigration controls to limit the number and type of workers coming to Britain. Other EU countries have similar laws in place. For example, in Austria many workers are immigrants from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia.

Their role in the labour market is enshrined within the law. When it comes to hiring and sacking workers, there is a hierarchy with Austrian workers at the top, followed by EU citizens with other immigrant workers at the bottom. If immigrants are sacked they can be thrown out of the country. None of that has done Austrian workers any good.

The same government that implemented these laws has also pushed through the biggest welfare state cuts since the Second World War.

In Britain, as in other EU countries, immigrants play a central role in the economy. They tend to be concentrated at the top and bottom of the labour market. Some are highly skilled workers, like doctors or computer programmers, who are cherry-picked to fill a skills gap in the UK economy. Others are used to perform the most unpleasant, degrading and low paid jobs.

There are no accurate figures for the number of immigrant workers in Britain. One estimate by the TUC suggests that 2.6 million people born outside Britain are working legally in the country-many are Australian, New Zealanders, French or American.

With the population of Britain aging and set to decline in the coming decades immigration is likely to play an increasingly important role in the economy. According to the Royal College of Nursing large sections of the health service would ‘cease to function’ without nurses from South Africa and the Philippines. And, far from being a drain on resources, immigrants pay £2.5 billion more in taxes each year than they consume in health, education and other state expenditure.

But they have few rights. It is estimated that less than one in four immigrant workers are represented by a trade union. They are three times more likely to be employed on fixed-term or ‘flexible’ contracts. Although they are legally entitled to the same employment rights as British workers, these rights are almost impossible to enforce. If workers complain that they are being paid less than the minimum wage or being denied paid holidays, they risk being sacked and losing their work permits. This means they can be deported before they have a chance to go before an industrial tribunal to demand their rights.

The tragic death of 20 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay highlighted the kind of the work that immigrants are forced into. Often they are employed at the bottom of the supply chain for supermarkets and other multinationals.

Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU union, says the cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay are just one example. He says, ‘In Norfolk gangworkers were paid just £3 to cut 1,000 daffodils. In Cambridgeshire workers were forced to live in partitioned containers with no water supply and had up to £80 a week rent deducted for the privilege. ‘In a fish processing plant in Scotland, gang workers were found working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for less than the minimum wage.’

Felicity Lawrence has written a new book on the politics of food. She says immigrant workers ‘cut our daffodils in Cornwall, pack our carrots in Lincolnshire and pick our fruit in Kent. They piece together our microwaves in the north and build our electrical goods in the south. I have come across cases from Bristol to Sussex to East Anglia, from the 65 migrants living in an old ten-bedroom hotel with no kitchen and no heating to the 27 camping in a small house without sanitation.’

Unfortunately some liberal commentators, seeing the horrific conditions many immigrant workers face, have drawn the wrong conclusions. They argue that immigration drives down the wages and conditions of workers already in Britain and that more immigration controls are needed to reverse this process.

Polly Toynbee wrote an article in the Guardian criticising New Labour’s vision of a cheap, flexible labour force. She concluded that ‘people are right to fear immigration if it is used as a way to keep pay down’. David Goodhart, editor of Prospect Magazine, went further, arguing that immigration was leading to Britain becoming a ‘US-style society with sharp ethnic tension and a weak welfare state’.

These arguments are entirely wrong. The period of the creation and expansion of the welfare state in Britain-the 1950s and 1960s-was also when there was large-scale immigration from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Wages throughout that period rose across the economy. Black and Asian workers were, and are, lower paid and concentrated in the worst jobs. But as they became organised in unions their wages rose too, and they had the same employment rights as white workers.

Racist controls brought immigration to a virtual halt in the 1970s. That was also the decade when the neo-liberal assault on welfare and public services began. Since then we have had BOTH worsening rights for all workers AND more restrictions on economic migrants and asylum seekers.

The further immigration controls New Labour is suggesting for east European workers are designed to create a layer with no rights. They are part of the attacks bosses want to see on all workers. Already lone parents, the unemployed, disabled people and those suffering long term illness have had their access to benefits curbed. There is a very simple way to stop employers treating immigrant labour like the Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay.

It is to extend rights for all workers and to police them with the kind of rigour that this government directs against asylum seekers and immigrants. A minimum wage set at the ‘European decency threshold’ of £7.40 an hour would end the worst abuses for indigenous and immigrant workers. Instead New Labour and the Tories want freedom for business to move round the world in search of the fastest profit.

Meanwhile workers are fenced in, gazing through the gaps as jobs and wealth move from one continent to another-as is happening for call centre staff. Where the government is creating an artificial division to drive down all our conditions and to create a ready scapegoat for its failings, many trade unionists are trying to organise immigrant workers.

The TGWU union is recruiting rural labourers. They were interviewed in a recent issue of the union’s Land Worker magazine. They explained how recruiting poultry workers from Portugal into the union and securing their rights to equal pay and conditions had broken down barriers between British and foreign workers.

That undermined the racist lies about immigrants stealing jobs, and ensured that the food companies could not exploit immigrant workers to drive down wages. That’s the kind of answer we need in every workplace, combined with a principled political challenge to racism and to the government’s divide and exploit policies.


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