In the face of the economic crisis, many politicians are blaming migrant workers. But what is the truth behind the racist rhetoric? The recession has had devastating consequences for migrant workers. During the boom thousands of workers fuelled the surge of construction in Dubai and Moscow. They provided cheap labour and did the worst jobs in Britain and Ireland - which before the recession were deemed the big "success stories" of European capitalism. Migrant workers are concentrated in sectors that have experienced the largest contractions in output, such as construction, export-oriented industries and the so-called hospitality sector. Right wing groups and divisive government policies have tried to use migrant workers as a scapegoat. The Italian government, for example, rounded up and detained 1,300 African workers from Rosarno, a town in southern Italy, deporting those without papers. Riots were sparked when members of the Mafia carried out a drive-by shooting and there were pitched battles between these workers and the police. European governments have responded with voluntary return programmes. Spain introduced a law in September 2008 encouraging non-EU migrants to return home. In exchange for renouncing their work and residence permits and undertaking not to return to Spain for three years, workers who agree to return are given a meagre financial incentive. Not surprisingly, many have not taken up this offer. These sort of schemes encourage the idea that migrant workers, not the crisis, are the problem.
Other governments have been yet more vicious. Since November 2008, 8,000 undocumented migrants have been deported from Korea. In Malaysia 65,000 irregular migrants faced "fast track" deportations and had to pay a fee to avoid imprisonment. Russia's 10 million migrant workers are facing increasing poverty and persecution. In December 2008 a group of skinheads are reported to have killed 20 migrant workers in Moscow. The Moscow Human Rights Bureau reported 113 migrants murdered between January and October 2008. This is not the first time a crisis has been used to attack migrant workers. In 1973-74 many countries in Western Europe reversed policies that had attracted migrant workers during the long post-war boom. The fall in remittances - the money sent home by migrant workers - is disastrous. Countries such as Kyrgyzstan rely very heavily on money earned in the Russian Federation. One third of the labour force of Tajikistan is employed outside the country and remittances account for 45 percent of its gross domestic product. Many families "invested" all of their savings into sending family members abroad to provide money but who now find themselves unemployed. In Britain migrant workers were welcomed by the government when they filling shortages in the labour market during the boom. The government and bosses' organisations argued that immigration created significant economic benefits for the country. In 2007 the then home secretary, Jacqui Smith, spoke of the "purity of the macroeconomic case for migration".
Since then the points-based system of immigration has been introduced to filter and control the number of migrants from outside the EU. Jacqui Smith quickly changed her tune, saying, "It is right in a downturn to be more selective about the skills level of those migrants and to do more to put British workers first." It is hardly surprising that these sorts of comments encourage the adoption of xenophobic slogans such as "British jobs for British workers". The state and bosses want to treat migrant workers as a reserve army of labour that can be drawn on or dispensed with. However, while some migrant workers have left Britain to return to Central and Eastern Europe, recent reports reveal a much more complex picture. A 2009 Labour Market Outlook survey found that 8 percent of British employers planned to recruit migrant workers, at the same time as broader recruiting plans were at an all-time low. Migrant workers now hold more than one in 12 jobs in the UK - more than double the rate in 1997. According to a public policy adviser, "The idea that migrant workers comprise a marginal segment of the UK workforce that is dispensed with when times are tough is clearly wide of the mark." A recent report on global migration by the Migration Policy Institute found that although the recession has dampened the movement of economic migrants they are choosing to stay in their adopted countries, despite high unemployment and lack of jobs. Voluntary return programmes have fallen short because workers have settled or simply because the prospects in their home countries are even direr.
Governments have an ambivalent attitude to undocumented migrant workers. They have been responsible for closing the Sangatte camp in Calais, while cleaners from the University of London were arrested and deported for daring to organise a trade union. But the reality of capitalism is that it relies on exploiting low-cost foreign labour and it is in its interests to keep these workers in a vulnerable position. In Europe the British trade union movement has been to the fore in recruiting and organising migrant workers and building solidarity across borders. Home secretary Alan Johnson has called for a “debate” on immigration to engage what he calls Britain’s “moderate majority”. He claims that discussing immigration is the way to undercut the fascist British National Party (BNP). But it is the lies that mainstream politicians peddle about immigration – not a lack of discussion about it – that helps to fuel the Nazis. Johnson claimed that part of the attraction of the BNP was that “it is raising things that other political parties don’t raise”. He meant immigration – yet this is nonsense. Mainstream political parties barely stop talking about immigration. This is particularly the case at times of economic crisis when politicians want to divert blame for poverty, lack of services and jobs onto anyone other than themselves and their system.
The BNP has managed to feed off a climate created by mainstream parties and their constant “tough talking” on immigration. Being “tough” on immigration helps to give rise to racism and the idea that “outsiders” are a problem. This is a dangerous position that helps the Nazis to appear respectable. The recession was not caused or made worse by how many people live in Britain. It was triggered by the greed of those at the top of society, and by economic crisis built into the capitalist system. Poverty, unemployment, lack of housing and services do not exist because too many people live in Britain. They exist because the government stands for big business and the rich, rather than the needs of working class people. Housing is a perfect example of how this works. Many people are stuck in substandard housing, and some have no home at all. This isn’t because immigrants have taken all the houses. There are more than a million empty homes in Britain, more than enough for everyone to have a decent place to live; the problem is that access to it is based on how much money you have. So the rich have several homes, while the poorest are stuck on the streets. The recession doesn’t mean that there is no money to support people. The government has spent billions upon billions of pounds on bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bailing out the banks. It has shown that, even during economic crisis, billions of pounds are available – but only for things that help those at the top.
Does immigration lead to fewer jobs and lower wages? No – saying that employment and wage rates are the result of immigration is to look at the situation the wrong way around. Migrant workers tend to leave countries if there are no jobs. Many reports into immigration patterns show that migrant workers make a significant contribution to economies and communities. They also show that migration has no significant impact on employment rates. Several have shown that migrant workers have a positive effect on wage levels. It is the bosses paying low wages who are responsible for poverty pay. Divisions between migrant and “indigenous” workers will only make it easier for the bosses to get away with it. And it is the government’s refusal to invest in things ordinary people so desperately need that boosts unemployment. The government has recently changed its immigration policy to a points based system, one that prioritises highly trained professionals and wants to attract “entrepreneurs”. This is part of the government’s strategy to put the needs of business first, before the needs of ordinary people who want to live in Britain. The bosses and the government are hypocrites when it comes to immigration. When the economy is expanding the government encourages people to come to Britain to fill the jobs. But when those jobs disappear, they attack immigrants. The rich can move themselves and their businesses freely around the globe. Immigration controls exist to target the poor. They benefit those at the top of society while spreading division and racism.
The right wing consensus that immigration leads to job losses and lower wages took a blow from a home office report. Immigrants now account for more than four million of the 37 million working age people in Britain. The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Immigration report argues that migrant workers “have very little discernible negative impact on labour market outcomes for native workers”. Immigration had pushed the numbers of foreign born workers up to 12.5 percent from 7.4 percent ten years ago. The report said the increase of migrant workers in the workforce contributed billions to the economy last year. Migration has also had no significant impact on the unemployment rates. The report says that evidence suggests that immigration has a slightly positive effect on wages. It does say that there was a “very modest negative effect” on wage growth among the very unskilled. This is a lower rate of wage increases than in skilled sectors, rather than wage cuts. Another home office report last week talked about the strain on services caused by migration. This was a survey of attitudes rather than of evidence. It is not surprising that, as the government makes cuts to public services, people feel that there is a crisis in health and education. But the survey noted that 13 percent of NHS staff in the north west of England are immigrants. Migrants are not straining resources, but rather working alongside non-migrant workers in providing services.
Recent reports have shown the contradictions that immigration raises for our rulers. They are happy that recent immigration has generated an estimated £40 billion a year for Britain’s economy, but unwilling to spend the millions required to provide decent housing, education and services. Britain has always been populated by immigrants, from the first wanderers to discover it, through to the Romans who founded London and the waves of people who followed. This is not just a story of poor people on the move. The ruling classes have travelled too. These include the Normans who established the aristocracy, the Germans who came with the Hanoverian monarchs in the 18th century and the economic migrants among the international rich who come now in search of low taxes. Though they have always been quick to scapegoat, rulers tended to welcome additional labour and skills, which they rightly saw as a source of wealth. It was industrialisation in the 19th century that began the greatest migration of people in history. People moved because they were pushed off the land or were simply looking for work and a better life. The scale of movement was made possible by developments in transport, particularly the railway and the steamer.
The biggest migration to Britain was from Ireland. Large scale permanent migration started after the famine of the mid-1840s. Those who could afford it fled to the US but others were forced to travel to Britain, whose rulers’ actions had caused the famine. In ten years the Irish population of Britain doubled. By 1861 25 percent of the population of Liverpool were Irish, along with 18 percent of Glasgow and 5 percent of London. By the 1880s some 1.5 million people of Irish origin lived in Britain – about 3 percent of the population. Those who resented them blamed immigrants for their own poverty. Bigots portrayed the Irish as a separate race, reduced in caricature to apes. Irish workers lived in the worst housing and bosses attempted to use them to undercut other workers’ wages. The way Irish immigrants were blamed for the unsanitary, overcrowded housing they were forced to inhabit has particular resonance today. Although it was immigrants who suffered the worst housing, British born workers also suffered appalling conditions. Karl Marx’s analysis of the divisions between British born workers and Irish immigrants has never been bettered: “This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation.”
Whenever the working class was strong and united, the conditions of both Irish and British workers were strengthened. The Chartists were the world’s first great working class movement. They announced: “Irishmen resident in London, on the part of the democrats in England we extend to you the warm hand of fraternisation – your principles are ours, and our principles shall be yours.” The national Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor was Irish. William Cuffay, chartist leader in London, was both an immigrant and black. Unfortunately the Chartists were defeated, and racist ideas were able to fester. The New Unionism of the 1880s brought a new wave of Irish activists into politics. Many of the leaders of the new movement were of Irish descent, including Will Thorne of the gas workers and Ben Tillett, who was one of the leaders of the great 1889 London Docks strike. By 1871 changes in the labour requirements of capital internationally meant Britain had become a net exporter of population, but issues around immigration would arise repeatedly. Ireland was officially part of Britain at this time so there was no issue of immigration controls – it was not controls that lessened the flow. Irish immigration was encouraged by the effects of imperial policy, which created conditions of starvation in Ireland, and by the enormous need for labour in Britain. It shows clearly the general dynamic of immigration – it has always followed the availability of work.
Behind the recent wave of scare stories about migrant workers and ‘health tourists’ is a campaign to find scapegoats for the problems created by New Labour; but realistically, it doesn't add up. Many people were shocked when Margaret Hodge, the New Labour minister and MP for Barking in east London, called for “indigenous” families to be given priority over “new migrants” when it comes to allocating council housing. Hodge’s inflammatory comments were swiftly condemned by anti-racists, and attacked by some of her colleagues in the Labour Party, such as Jon Cruddas, MP for neighbouring Dagenham. But Hodge’s tactic of heaping the blame for housing shortages on immigrants is not an isolated aberration. There has been an alarming trend in recent months of New Labour ministers pandering to and endorsing racist scare stories spread by the right wing press. Immigration minister Liam Byrne said the arrival of migrant workers in Britain had “deeply unsettled the country”. He promised a “tough” points-based immigration system to control the flow of immigration. This is not an isolated coincidence; the anger against the government over the war is increasingly being compounded by frustration over a whole range of social issues such as NHS cuts, housing shortages, mass inequality and low pay.
Rather than reverse the neoliberal policies at the heart of these problems, ministers choose to stoke up the myth that immigrants are to blame for making Britain a worse place to live. But is it really the case that immigrants are putting massive pressure on services such as the NHS, driving up the cost of housing and undercutting the wages of low paid “British” workers? In fact the vast majority of newspaper stories cited as evidence against immigrants are ridiculous and easily demolished. For example, the London Evening Standard newspaper ran an article headlined “Influx of Immigrants Forces Council to Build Four New Schools”. The story rested on the fact that in Bradford, West Yorkshire, four new schools are being built to cope with an expected increase in the number of primary aged children. But a minimal investigation reveals that Bradford has the second highest birth rate of any part of Britain outside London. Moreover, the projected increase in the number of school aged children is the result of “home grown” births, and has nothing to do with immigration. The Standard article also features Wrexham in North Wales, where we are told there is a “crisis” in the city’s schools caused by the arrival of Polish children. This “influx” turns out to be 50 pupils – averaging at one child per school across the city. And the Standard article does not say that the number of school aged children in the city has declined by 500 in the last five years.
A similar argument is at work over healthcare – and it is no less disingenuous. There is a financial crisis in the NHS that is having an effect on both patient care and those who work in the service. But the government is desperate to deflect blame away from itself over this. A host of newspaper articles have come to its aid with stories of “health tourists” arriving to Britain to seek free medical treatment, or of NHS jobs being taken by “foreign nurses”. The Mail on Sunday ran a front page headline that read “Widow, 88, Told by GP: Make Way for Asylum Seekers”. It will never tell its readers that 770 qualified doctors in Britain came to the country as refugees. Neither will it tell them that the majority of immigrants to Britain pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits and services. Much of this is due to the age profile of immigrants. Around three quarters of those who have come to Britain from Poland, for example, are aged between 18 and 34. They are the most likely to be working and least likely to be using services such as healthcare and education. The notion that foreign nurses are taking British jobs is similarly mythical. Anyone who has been in hospital recently will tell you how understaffed hospitals are. This is because of severe cutbacks across the country, which means up to 80 percent of recent trainee nurses in Britain are unable to find work.
The government’s response to this situation was to tell nurses from overseas to expect that their contracts would not be renewed in the future. But this knee-jerk reaction will simply damage the NHS further. The Royal College of Nursing notes that the expected retirement of 180,000 nurses over the next ten years will create a crisis in recruitment that is impossible to solve without overseas nurses. “[Overseas nurses] are not newly qualified,” it reports. “On average they have 14 years of experience and specialist skills. It is unrealistic to assume that newly qualified home grown nurses will be able to fulfil those kinds of roles.” The government and its friends are also quick to blame immigration for a decline in living standards for workers. Nevertheless it is true that bosses, particularly those in the hotel, cleaning, catering and construction industries, are always looking for ways to use unregulated workers (of whatever origin) to reduce costs. Employers will always try paying as little as possible, including refusing to pay the minimum wage – particularly to those who are without work permits. There are a number of potential answers to this problem, but blaming immigrants is not one of them. For a start the government could grant an amnesty to all those who are working in Britain without proper documentation.
The government could also raise the minimum wage and pass laws that would severely punish employers who paying less than the minimum. It is also imperative for trade unions to act quickly and organise migrant workers. This would help integrate them into the organised working class, just like generations of migrants in the past. Underlying our rulers’ myths is the fact that capitalism has contradictory instincts when it comes to immigration. The ruling class needs migrant labour to fill the low paid and insecure jobs that increasingly characterise neoliberal Britain. But it doesn’t want to take on any costs associated with those workers. So migrants are allowed into the country in order to earn a pittance – but there is also a drive to bar them from access to healthcare, housing, education and other publicly funded services. More fundamentally, the ruling class knows that it has to divide the labour force on national, racial and ethnic lines if it is going to keep wages down. A divided working class competes against itself, seeing its different component parts as threats and enemies. It is therefore less likely to form the effective collective organisation necessary to defend its living standards and conditions from attack by the bosses. As politicians and commentators egg each other on in their game of divide and conquer, we need to ensure that workers know who their real enemies are.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.