Time to Unite all Workers – Migrants as well as Citizens

(This was first published in the Morning Star, December 24th 2016)

THE traditional season of goodwill to all men and women is the right time to remind ourselves that the cause of the working class is international and extends to all who sell their labour across the planet.

Among the ranks of this international working class we need to count the 244 million people who earn their living outside the countries they were born in.
It is amongst this group that we find some of the most grievously exploited of wage earners, labouring for a pittance a day in conditions where their most basic human rights are routinely denied.

Many people think that the accounts of employer abuse of migrant workers concern places far away, like the Gulf state of Qatar, where the conditions of south Asian construction workers building the amenities for the 2022 World Cup are the stuff of scandal.

Or perhaps in Thailand, where Burmese migrants suffer situations akin to slavery in the country’s vast poultry industry and as operatives in its fishing fleets.

The disturbing truth is that people concerned with labour exploitation and specifically migrant labour exploitation can be found a lot closer to home, and in some cases in sectors where they work alongside trade unionists.

Reports from Germany, seen by many as a country where the regulation of workplaces still ensures decent conditions, tell us of sectors like construction where the imposition of abusive conditions on migrants is rife.

In one well-reported instance, Romanian workers employed on the construction of a prestigious shopping mall in the centre of Berlin were being paid as little as €6 an hour — far below the minimum wage rate which required an hourly rate of over €10 at the time.
Other European countries provide evidence of migrant labour exploitation.

Across the continent migrants make up a large proportion of the agricultural labour force, imposing conditions on people employed in farm work that are often brutal.

In Spain the predominance of Africans in this sector arises from the racialised, inferior social status of black people, condemning them to unskilled work, on poor pay, and with short periods of employment in jobs that are rarely part of a promotion ladder.

The influence of race and a past history of colonialism is also evident in France, where discrimination works to deprive people of access to the rights which the law appears to extend to them.

The percentage of people of north African nationalities engaged in semi- or unskilled occupations is in the region of 70-80 per cent.

At this level of concentration in jobs which provide the least compensation the disadvantage experienced by migrants tends to become inter-generational — being passed from parents to their French-born children.

In Britain the drive to push back against labour market regulation has been under way since the days of the Thatcher government in the 1980s.

The vast expansion of a low-wage service sector with variable demand for workers according to season or the state of the firm’s order books has created the need for the “just-in-time” employee — the individual who will turn up when their labour is needed, and when it isn’t, impose no costs on the business.

The availability of this group to the needs of capital is secured through mechanisms like “zero-hours” employment contracts and the use of intermediaries working as gangmasters and private-sector employment agencies.

All of these work to transfer a larger share of the risk of running a business from the employer to employee.

The burden of having to provide paid holidays, sick leave or maternity rights is shifted to what is represented as a temporary labour force to which the owners owe nothing in the way of social protection.

Unsurprisingly, anyone who has the opportunity to avoid employment in sectors where rights have been reduced to such a low level will do so.

Citizen workers who have some capacity to negotiate more favourable terms of employment will tend to shun the low-skill jobs offered in areas like construction, hospitality, farm work and food processing, domestic work and social care.

In their place migrants become available to take on jobs which, though necessary for the overall functioning of the economy, offer minimal rewards to workers.

In recent times a myth has emerged that migrants are “happy” to take on jobs of this sort because the wages they can earn in low-skilled work in an economically developed country are generally higher than what they would get even in skilled, professional work in the regions they come from.

This encourages the view that migrants effectively collaborate with employers to keep wages in certain sectors low so they do not have to compete with locals for what would otherwise be seen as desirable jobs.

This would be an unreasonable conclusion to draw.

Right across the world neoliberal ideology has been using market forces to restructure great swathes of manufacturing and service sector jobs in ways that bring a maximum of downward pressure on wage levels and conditions of employment.

Reversing these deeply entrenched trends will require more than simply closing jobs to migrants: it will require a fundamental challenge to the entire logic of a global capitalist system that has been unfolding since the 1970s and beyond.

Renewed efforts are required from the labour movement to counter the gross exploitation of migrants, across the rest of the world as much as in Britain.

However this will not be achieved by the current favourite policy of tighter controls over immigration with the aim of admitting only “the brightest and the best” on terms that will depend on them proving their “value” to British capitalism.

Tighter controls nowadays means the sort of police state measures enacted in the two recent Immigration Acts, which redouble the drive towards passport and identity checks by employers and workplace raids by Border Force enforcement officers.

These are conditions that are designed to snuff out the emergence of workplace activism among migrant workers as surely as the anti-trade union legislation of recent decades has aimed to end working-class militancy.

The deep indignation that ripped across migrant communities during the incident when Byron Burger collaborated with the Home Office produced a real stirring class awareness that has been followed up in the drive by Unite to recruit hotel workers, the GMB to bring care workers into the union, and Unison to deepen its work amongst the hundreds of thousands of migrants who work in the healthcare sector.

Then there are the bold experiments by the so-called independent unions — such as United Voices of the World and the International Workers of the World — who are even pushing the idea of workplace organisation into such ultra-casualised areas as the Deliveroo operation, contract cleaning and bicycle couriers.

With these developments the mood is being set for a revival of grassroots activism which will extend across the working class.

The call for the workers of the world to unite has long been the inspiration for labour in the days when it could pit itself against the forces of capitalism.

Applied to today’s world it means action in solidarity with migrant workers, and a repudiation of all efforts to divide us.

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