They say: Britain is “full up”.
We say: Can a country of 250,000 square kilometres become full up in the same way that a train carriage becomes full up? No. Even if the UK’s population doubles we’ll all still “find a seat”.
If everyone in the world moved to, say, Watford, or Exeter, tomorrow, there would be an absolute shortage of housing and jobs. Such an overwhelming population inflow is inconceivable. But the right objects to quite small movements of people.
The Daily Mail voices the “concerns” of councillors in Peterborough about an influx of migrant workers from Eastern Europe. The Daily Mail expresses the idea that Britain “cannot cope”. They say housing and services cannot expand to accommodate new migrants.
Well, that depends. New migrants are also workers who provide more services and build more housing.
Provision for workers, such as housing and the NHS is generally forced on capitalism by working-class action. The welfare state was demanded, fought for and won by the working class movement after the Second World War. It is when the organised labour movement retreats that provision gets cut.
In fact the underlying message of the tabloid press is not so much absolute numbers but that “foreign”, brown skinned or “culturally different” people are by their very nature a “problem”.
They say: “The economic benefit from [the inflow of migrants] is very limited.” (Migration Watch)
We say: migrants are often highly skilled, contribute to economic growth and pay around £41.2 billion in taxes a year (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, quoting latest government statistics). pay more in taxes than they use in services.
But there is a problem with the idea embedded in the term “economic benefit”. It implies immigration has one impact, and only one, across a single entity, “the economy”. It implies that “we”, the British, are all in it together; we have one set of interests, against the interests of “the immigrants”.
Britain is not one homogeneous whole. Britain is divided by class. Our concern is not with the bosses that run the businesses that benefit from exploiting migrant labour.
Our concern is entirely with the workers: how can both “British born” and immigrant workers unite to benefit from the mass migration which is a by-product of capitalist globalisation?
They say: immigration drives down wages.
We say: sometimes it may do. Increased inward migration to the UK over the last years may, through union weakness, have been allowed to have a negative impact on the wage levels of the low paid. But only a very slight impact.
The bosses would have tried to drive down wages for “entry level” workers whether or not these jobs had been filled by “native” or migrant workers. Whether or not wages are cut depends on us. An adequate minimum wage would solve the problem.
Migrant workers need unions to protect them. Unity between migrants and UK-born workers is the best guarantee we have that wages and conditions will be levelled up, not driven down.
They say: we can and should stop mass migration now.
We say: short of some massive war, or ecological meltdown and collective ruination, or the coming to power of fascism in Britain, the increased movement of people to and from the UK (427,000 left the UK in 2008) is a fact. Modern information and transport systems are not going to disappear.
The knitting together of the global economy is, in many ways, positive. The problem is that this is capitalist globalisation, carried out by bosses, in their own interests. When their global system fails they want workers to pay the price.
They say: asylum seekers and immigrants come here to benefit from our public services.
Such stories are designed to appeal to the mean and selfish streak in us all and to push away the impulse towards sympathy and solidarity for people. They generate anxiety and hatred by playing on two fears:
• if immigrants take resources, there won’t be adequate facilities for everyone else;
• hard-stretched British people will have to pay extra taxes so that migrants can get e.g. NHS treatment.
Such stories strike a chord at times like these when there is a lot of poverty and lack of financial security. In such conditions scapegoating and division can grow.
The numbers of migrants are relatively small and cannot explain the basic cause of the NHS’s problems, or the lack of affordable housing. That is the fault of government and the capitalist system that rations housing on the basis of ability to pay and increasingly regulates health provision according to the law of the market. Agitation against immigrants on these questions lets the people who really are to blame off the hook.
We should demand the bosses (who profit enormously from migrant labour) pay for the expansion of services. Tax the rich to fund health and education for all!
Will we be able to achieve this, as we have in the past? Again, that depends on what we, trade unionists, campaigners, activists, do.
They say: Britain is losing its own culture.
We say: as the world’s economies and people are brought closer together, different national cultures merge, synthesise and change. This process has been going on for decades and it is speeding up. It is unstoppable; an attempt to stop it is utopian.
The fascist BNP claims: “Our culture is a combination of our history, our temperament, our sporting, artistic, literary and musical heritage, our environment, our interests and aspirations, our language, our religion and our form of government. Only the BNP values and wants to preserve our traditional culture.”
Nations are real and such a thing as national culture does exist. But the British “national culture” is the result of centuries of outside influence, not least waves of inward migration. Why should “British culture” be defended against further outside influences, now, in the 21st century?
And what about our “artistic, literary and musical heritage”? Isn’t a good thing we can now listen to rap music and Beethoven, read Australian novels and watch US films, see foreign players in British football teams? Why would anyone expect us to listen and read without also being influenced and somewhat changed by the experience of these “outsiders”?
Not all foreign culture is good, and not all “British” bad. And vice versa. Culture should be assessed critically. If there is something oppressive or violent in a national culture (domestic violence, female genital mutilation, “gay bashing” etc) it should be challenged head-on.
History needs to be assessed critically, from a class viewpoint. There is a British working class tradition of internationalism and solidarity which includes the fight for votes for women, and the 1926 General Strike. That is a very different to the history to that of, say, British colonialism, Thatcher’s government, or Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We have much more in common with migrant workers than we do with our “own” bosses.
There are poor, vulnerable and politically uneducated people in the UK who are not racists but are still uneasy about fast changes in society.
Activists and trade unionists who understand the arguments need to explain to those people the choices they face. Either we unite with migrants, or we allow migrant workers to be used to undermine wages and conditions, to the benefit of our bosses and to the detriment of all workers.
Racism is a major reason that some people oppose migrants: “whites will soon be a minority” in some British towns, says Migration Watch.
The question of “culture” morphs into another — the issue of skin colour. With a sleight of hand, British “culture” becomes “white culture”.
We have to confront these issues and make the arguments.
Unite workers, black and white, all religions and none, migrant and British-born, “legal” and “illegal” to fight for jobs, housing and services for all! Open borders! Fight for asylum and immigration rights!
Together at work
Solidarity spoke to Kate, a London Underground worker, about her experience of working and organising alongside migrant workers.
I work as part of the station staff team. There is a very diverse group of workers here. In the main British-born white workers but also Asian and black British, and migrant workers from Nigeria and Ghana, Poland and Ireland.
The cleaning staff have until recently been entirely migrant workers. The recent crack down on immigration status has seen young British-born white workers being employed. The cleaners’ wages are very low.
We do have discussions at work about immigration and asylum. I don’t know whether these are better informed than in other workplaces, but it is obviously easier to talk about the realities of migrant work when many of your colleagues are… migrant workers.
People also get bees in the bonnets. One of my colleagues — who is from an Asian background — has a thing about Turkish immigrants. She is aggrieved about not being able to get a council house for her family, she’s projected some grievances onto Turkish people. But we had an argument and I changed her mind.
The myths about people who don’t work or who claim benefits are probably less common in my workplace. Here migrant workers are seen to be working bloody hard.
The organising of migrant workers, in the cleaners’ grade, has ground to a halt recently. This is largely because of a bad objective reality — many workers were sacked after a strike. The union hasn’t yet cracked how to defend individual migrant workers.
There are issues here for the whole labour movement — getting legal status for immigrant workers for instance —that have been taken up by groups like the Campaign Against Immigration Controls. And there are specific issues, issues for my union, the RMT. It is very difficult for individual migrant workers to put their head above the parapet. They need well-resourced structures to help them.