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Undercutting the racist myths on migrants

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The tide of hatred against migrants is based on a series of myths. One of the main ones is that they undermine conditions for workers here. Socialist Worker looks at the facts
Issue 2386
Migrant workers during a cleaners strike against Mitie bosses in London
Migrant workers during a cleaners’ strike against Mitie bosses in London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Britain is in revolt  against migrants, according to the “common sense” spewed from much of the media and all the main political parties.

BBC chief political correspondent Nick Robinson was given an hour-long TV programme, The Truth about Immigration, to ram the point home earlier this month.

He claimed that until recently, Britain’s political elite prevented ordinary people’s real anger from being honestly discussed. 

Apparently this was  because it was in the economic interests of the rich to bring in more migrants while poor workers suffer as their wages are undercut. 

People told Robinson of health services and schools under pressure, rising rents and unemployment, and falling pensions and wages. Migration, it was said, made all of these issues worse. 

The British Social Attitudes survey reported that 77 percent of people support a reduction in immigration, with 56 percent wanting it cut “by a lot”. 

The number backing a substantial cut has risen from 39 percent in 1995 and 49 percent a decade ago.

But, migrants who have come to Britain are not the cause of the crisis for working class people. The assumptions made in parliament and the media  can all be challenged.

Do they drive down wages?

Prime minister David Cameron has said Britain’s relations with the European Union (EU) must be renegotiated to cap migration to Britain. 

In an unusual show of compassion, he claimed this is because he is so worried about the effects of migration on the conditions of British workers.

Labour leader Ed Miliband joined the furore. Writing in the Independent on Sunday newspaper he declared, “Unless we act to change our economy, low-skill immigration risks making the problems of the cost of living crisis worse for those at the sharp end.”

Pay for millions of workers has been falling in recent years, but there is little evidence that mass migration had a significant impact.

So a 2009 study by Howard Reed and Maria Latorre concluded that the average wage fell by just 0.3 percent when the migrant share of the working age population rose by just one percentage point. 

Yet Sara Lemos’s study of Wales the next year showed that the arrival of migrant workers coincided with an increase in average wages by approximately £22.50 a year. And this is in a traditionally low paid part of Britain. 

The Max Nathan study of British cities in 2011 concluded that migration had made no change to average wages.

But while these small differences can be disputed, pay for millions has undoubted fallen—and not because of immigration.

Bosses in both the public and private sectors have used the recession as an excuse for pay freezes, short-time working and job cuts. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported last year that average pay had dropped by 8 percent since 2008. 

The biggest reason for low pay in sectors of the economy such as catering, cleaning and elderly care, has been outsourcing and privatisation. 

The key to reversing the years of falling pay is not to turn against migrants but to use the potential power of unions to unite all workers and strike back against employers. 

On average, pay remains better for members of trade unions than those who are not.

But fighting back not only improves the wages of those who are already in unions—it inspires people in unorganised workplaces to resist too.

Cleaners in London—many of them migrants—have been at the sharp end of a fight for a living wage in hospitals, schools, and on the Underground. Fellow trade unionists have played an important role in supporting them when they have struck.

And, when workers are fighting back it makes it clearer who the real enemies are, and why blaming other workers is a bosses’ trick. 

Are migrants overloading the NHS?

Some say that migrants are behind the sharp rise in numbers recorded attending A&E because the hike coincided with the big increase in numbers arriving from Central and Eastern Europe in 2004.

But Adam Steventon from the Nuffield Trust said his research shows that migrants use the NHS less than people born in Britain. He concluded, “In fact, admission rates were around half that of English-born people of the same age and sex.”

The real reason for overcrowded A&Es is a mixture of hospital cuts, oversubscribed GP services, lack of community and residential care, and the near collapse of mental health services.

Do migrants drive up rents?

Rents are spiralling and some buy-to-let landlords are refusing to let to those on housing benefits. It is understandable that some people think that things would be better if there was less competition from migrants.

But the reason for the crisis is a policy of driving up house prices and rents by creating scarcity. Banks and estate agents make more money as the market rises, while landlords keep homes empty to drive up rents. 

Research by Stephen Nickell suggested that even on the government’s own terms, if net migration was zero there would still be a need for at least 270,000 new homes per year to stop house price rises from outstripping wage increases.

And rising house prices mean rising rents. He concluded that the housing crisis will continue to worsen until more houses are built.

The current housing bubble is driven largely by financial speculation but it’s not migrants that are doing most of the speculating. The foreign-born population is three times as likely to be in the private rental sector compared to the British-born.

The key to making renting affordable, even in the heart of Britain’s big cities, is a ban on speculative building of offices, luxury flats and shopping malls. 

This should be combined with a massive programme of compulsory land purchasing, council house building and rent controls.

Council houses benefit everyone as an increase in supply drives down private rents and improves the overall quality of accommodation as the private sector is forced to compete.

How can we stop the scapegoating?

The ruling class uses the fear of migrant workers undercutting British born workers in a similar fashion to the way it uses the threat of the dole queues. 

The message is simple—accept wage freezes, pension cuts and job losses, or we will find others that will.

But our rulers have always had a contradictory attitude towards immigration. 

On one hand, they crave workers who are afraid of being sacked and so will put up with poor conditions. That’s what bosses in some industries hope to get from migrant labour.

On the other, firms also need a highly skilled and stable workforce whose costs tend to be high. 

To reduce their labour bill the bosses love to sow division in the hope that employees will see each other as competitors and enemies.

Some bosses chastise the government for imposing restrictions that limit the number of workers arriving—while stoking the divisions that the government is acting on. This contradiction is why the row over migration exists even in the cabinet.

But there are also contradictions in the views of workers who appear to have many anti-immigrant myths.

Many, when questioned, are at pains to say that they are not racist and that they believe that there are many benefits to living in a multicultural society. 

It is often the case that the same people who say they want to restrict immigration also report that they are friendly with their African, Asian and Eastern European neighbours, co-workers or school friends.

Many of those people can be won to a united fight for better jobs and services. It is vital that socialists are present within those campaigns to point out that even the lowest paid migrant workers can fight back too.

In the 1960s, black and Asian workers were commonly suspected of being a “soft touch” for the bosses, even by many good trade unionists.

The struggles of the 1970s transformed those perceptions. The struggles to come will doubtless do so again for the next generation of migrants.

Read more:

  • Immigration: the myths spread to divide us by Charlie Kimber (£2)
  • Sleepwalking to Segregation? Challenging myths about race and migration by Nissa Finney and  Ludi Simpson (£15.99)
  • Say it Loud! Marxism and the fight against racism edited by Brian Richardson (£9.99)

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