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Socialism Today 104 - October 2006

The immigration ‘debate’: silent on class

IMMIGRATION HAS resurfaced as a headline grabbing issue, with the Home Office announcement that, since 2004, 600,000 Eastern Europeans from the new EU countries (62% from Poland) have arrived in Britain – and that, with the (possible) enlargement of the EU to include Bulgaria and Romania early next year, there may be more immigration to come.

The ensuing ‘debate’ has seen, on one side, the hysteria of the rightwing, led by the Murdoch press. On the other side, we have the capitalist establishment and so-called ‘left-liberal’ commentators talking of the benefits immigration has brought to the ‘British’ economy and ‘British’ interests.

The right-wing press attempts to blame immigrants for falling wages and the fact that the welfare state is falling apart. It is claimed that immigrant workers have driven down wages in the construction industry by 50%. Since when did Polish workers set the wage levels in different sectors of the economy, legislate for the minimum wage, or administer company pay-rolls? The fact is that big business will pay as little as it can get away with in the pursuit of profit. Sir Digby Jones, former head of the Confederation of British Industry, admitted as much when commenting that "you cannot blame migrants if they are prepared to come here and work for wages which, though they may seem low to us, are a lot higher than in their own country". Indeed! This is a clear admission that the blame for low wages lies with big business.

Big businesses are in competition with one another for market share and profits. If a business can cut its costs by paying lower wages and giving itself a competitive edge, then it will do just that. This forces competing businesses to follow suit. The result is the driving down of wages for all workers, which is not the fault of immigrant workers but down to the imperatives of the capitalist system itself.

Similarly, the claim that immigration is the cause of the problems with the welfare state is a fallacy. Since Thatcher’s Tory government, whichever party has been in power has sought to break up and privatise the welfare state to keep their big-business friends in profit. This has resulted in the privatisation of council housing, cuts in benefits and pensions, and job losses and closures in the NHS. Yet again, it is the wilful decision of neo-liberal governments, Tory and Labour, to cut state expenditure and replace it with private, profit-driven provision that has led to the decline of the welfare state.

Wages are too low and the funding of public services inadequate. Immigration is used by big business and its representatives in government to excuse underinvestment in vital services and try and place the blame on anyone but themselves and their system. Official statistics estimate that immigrant workers contribute £2.5 billion to the economy each year. Rather than being a strain on the welfare state, most immigrant workers are aged in their 20s and 30s, and work when they get here. Less than 10% arrive with dependant family members, making them net contributors through the work they do and the taxes they pay. (The Independent, 23 August)

The main factors driving migration are also a result of the capitalist system. The restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 has been an unmitigated disaster. Unemployment in Poland and Slovakia stands officially at over 15%, pushing people to migrate to find work. As if to hammer home the way the imperatives of the capitalist system force migration, The Financial Times (29 August) reported that, because of rising skills shortages in Poland due to migration, "many Polish employers are beginning to turn to Ukrainians to fill the jobs gap"!

Other than false economic arguments, the right-wing press pushes as far as it can a racist and xenophobic line to further divide working people. It is in the interests of capitalism to sow divisions among the working people of the world. With globalisation, ownership of supposedly ‘British’ companies becomes more and more diffuse. Similarly, the different workforces around the world are more and more composed of different nationalities. For example, the National Farmers Union says British agriculture relies on 70,000 immigrant workers to bring in the harvest, and immigration now makes up 10% of the workforce in the construction industry, which still suffers from a lack of labourers (The Independent, 23 August).

It is usually at this point that the so-called ‘left liberal’ media takes up the case of immigrant workers and the contribution made to the ‘British’ economy. Organisations such as the London Stock Exchange announce immigration as a "cause for celebration" because "migration has contributed 0.5% to 1% to UK economic growth in each of the years 2005 and 2006". (The Independent, 23 August) The problem with this sort of analysis is that is poses immigration in terms of benefiting a supposed ‘British interest’. Comments about GDP say nothing about the distribution of wealth in society. The profits of British capitalism are booming yet the wealth gap between the richest and poorest has increased hugely since Labour came to power in 1997. Bonuses in ‘the city’ are at record levels based on these massive profits yet wages for everyone else remain at a paltry level.

The reason for this discrepancy is that there is no such thing as a ‘British interest’. Society is divided into different classes whose interests are at odds to one another. Capitalism’s profits come from exploiting the labour of working-class people. Nationality, immigrant or indigenous, is unimportant to big business – it will pay as little as it can get away with.

At other times, the ‘liberal’ press attains an astonishingly similar reflection of right-wing hysteria. Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a frequent contributor to The Independent, comments that "[British] people are either too lazy or expensive to compete. Tax-paying immigrants past and present keep indolent British scroungers on their couches drinking beer and watching TV. We [immigrants] are despised because we seize opportunities these slobs don’t want". (23 August) Competing with the right-wing press as to who can portray one group of workers as more ‘lazy’ than the other, does nothing to break down racism and xenophobia! No mention is made, for example, of the excessive overtime that British workers perform.

The concern of working-class people in Britain over the state of welfare provision and wage levels is totally legitimate. However, to place the blame on ‘immigrants’ does not address the causes of these problems or advance anything to improve the situation. The problem is the capitalist system itself.

A brief glance at history reveals when workers’ living conditions recorded their biggest improvements: in the 1960s and 1970s, when the trade union movement was at its strongest, representing more than 50% of working-class people in Britain. At this time, working-class people were represented by their own political party, the Labour Party, despite its generally pro-capitalist leadership. In other words, when the working class is sufficiently organised to demand back some of the wealth that it creates, improvements can be won.

The path to beginning to solve the problem of low wages, under-funded public services and racism is workers’ unity across ethnic, religious and national lines. This can only be built through the day-to-day experiences of working people. It is vital that the trade union movement makes the recruitment of migrant labour a top priority. Joint action of British-born and immigrant workers, organised in unions and based on a unity of interests, is how to stop big business using immigration as an excuse to cut wages and dismantle the welfare state.

But working people also need to be organised politically to fight for their interests in all areas of society. The need for a new mass workers’ party has never been clearer. Unfortunately, many of the major unions continue to affiliate to New Labour – the principal executors of big-business, neo-liberal interests that provide such fertile ground for division and racism. Philip Stevens, commenting in The Financial Times (29 August), points out that "the erosion of old political boundaries is evident in the debate about the influx of workers from Eastern Europe… Labour MPs these days are almost as likely as their Tory counterparts to call for tougher restrictions on foreigners". In other words, Labour and the Tories try and out-compete each other in scapegoating immigrants to divert attention from the fact that both parties’ policies caused these problems and will exacerbate them in the future.

Sean Figg


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