For many people it seems logical to conclude that migrant workers drive down wages. The argument goes that, if a Polish worker will work for £6 an hour on a building site, the boss won’t take on workers at the going rate of, say, £8 an hour. So wages fall. It is true that bosses try and get away with paying lower wages. But the history of migration to Britain shows that there is no causal connection between immigration and wages. So, in the 1930s there was very little immigration into Britain – yet there was mass unemployment. In the 1950s and 1960s British bosses and government ministers actively recruited migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent to work in booming Britain. Workers’ wages rose throughout those decades.
Today wages are declining, often due to cuts in overtime or hours. This coincides with a reduction in the number of migrants coming to Britain. But these examples relate to average wages. Is it different for those in low paid work? Bosses have tried to use migrant workers to lower wages in some low paid sectors. But an increase in numbers of migrant workers has sometimes raised wages. Struggles by migrant cleaners in London have won higher pay for many London cleaners in private companies.
A common myth is that migrant workers have driven down wages in the construction industry. Yet wages across the construction industry have risen over the last decade, even for the lowest paid. There is a battle over wages in construction, but it is not because of “foreign workers”. It stems from bosses trying to use unregulated workers – of whatever origin – and subcontracting to pay less. This is nothing new. Communist Party militant Jack Dash described working on a building site in the 1930s in his autobiography, published in 1969. “This was in the days when Irish immigrant labour was spreading,” he wrote. “Raw Catholic lads from Connemara and Galway were driven through poverty to come over to this country and seek a living and send money home their families. The building workers referred to them as ‘two for half-a-crown’.” This meant that bosses got two men working for the price of one. Dash added, “How true this was I don’t know, but like all racial minorities they were scapegoats – today it is our coloured brothers who are dehumanised and insulted.” He unionised the site and recruited the migrant workers into the union, stopping attempts to undercut wages.
There is a lesson here. Firms compete with each other and will always pay as little as they can in wages to boost their profits. But this is not the fault of migrant workers – it is the fault of the bosses. Those who seek to restrict the number of new workers are aiming at the wrong target. Division among workers is dangerous. An anti-immigrant climate can help the bosses pay migrant workers less. It then becomes easier to force everyone’s wages down. The bosses want “flexible labour markets” – a pool of workers that are instantly available, and instantly sackable. When crisis hits and they scale back production they say there are “too many” workers. There are only “too many” for the priorities of capitalism, the punishing number of hours people work and the assault on welfare services. Bosses try to use this so-called “reserve army of labour” to threaten workers into accepting lower wages. 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 Jewish refugees were simultaneously accused of taking British workers’ jobs and of living on welfare – the same racist myths that we hear about migrant workers today
Jewish workers campaigned against the TUC, which had called for a complete halt to immigration as it said migrants were lowering wages. But the left was able to shape the debate. Strikes by Jewish tailors in Leeds showed the potential for building united action – against racism and the growing offensive against workers. The workers launched a pamphlet arguing that it was the systematic drive by textile bosses to accumulate profits that held pay down. In 1907, bosses brought 700 Spanish workers to work in the Dowlais Iron Works in South Wales, apparently to undercut wages. Initially they led to hostile demonstrations and a proposal for a strike against the Spanish. However, socialists were able to undercut this. The strength of the Spanish union organisation and left wing ideas within it turned anti-immigrant ideas around. As one account puts it, “The young militant miners’ leaders who emerged in the 1920s acknowledged that they primarily acquired much of their sharpened trade union consciousness and internationalist outlook from the presence of the Spaniards in their midst.” In a similar way, at the end of the Second World War, thousands of Polish workers were brought to Britain to work in the mines.
The right of the labour movement argued for quotas of Polish miners and said that 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. The battle today, as then, is simpler than it may appear. We need to fight the propaganda intended to divide workers. And we need to fight against attacks on wages by pulling workers together against the bosses and racism.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.