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Workers of the world – welcome!

The British economy is reliant on migrant labour and has benefited greatly from the arrival of migrant workers from the new EU member states, argues Nigel Harris. An internationalist left should embrace the mobility of this new world working class, with its potential to redress global inequalities and end the scourge of xenophobia and war

November 1, 2007
13 min read

Some time in the 1990s, Britain ran out of workers. Or, more precisely, the faster the economy grew, the greater became the shortage of workers with the right skills. It seems the problem will get worse – the livelihood of those who live here will increasingly depend on recruiting complementary workers abroad.

Or you could see it in a different way. The British economy has become too big for the resources available on the territory.The UK has become the centre for global networks that operate far beyond the reach, let alone the knowledge, of any British government. Indeed, most of those who work to produce the ‘British’ output don’t work here geographically and know nothing of any connection to Britain.The old national self-sufficiency – in workers, in goods, in capital (if it ever existed) – has trickled away.

The unskilled

Governments talk a great deal about the need to search abroad for skilled workers (doctors, nurses, engineers, among others) to create a ‘high skill economy’. In fact, the skilled have always been allowed to get round immigration controls.

But the skilled are not the problem. Vast armies of low-skilled workers are needed to make possible the work of the skilled. Think of a hospital and all those thousands – porters, drivers, guards, gardeners, cleaners, canteen and laundry workers and many more – needed to make doctoring and nursing possible. The most notorious shortages of workers are here, not among doctors. The scarcities are worst in the building trades, agriculture, hotels and restaurants, cleaning services, shops, the health service, public transport and so on. The problem is at its most extreme in London and the big cities. There are just not enough native-born workers to keep the show on the road. With an increasingly aged population, the numbers of workers needed in the caring professions will make the shortages of workers much worse.

When the Labour government first came to power, it broke with the old Tory policy of not allowing entry to low skilled migrant workers at all. Special schemes allowed entry to selected low skilled workers for given periods.The economy boomed – employment had never reached such high levels and unemployment record lows.

Then, in May 2004, ten new countries joined the European Union.Workers from the new member states had the right to work anywhere in the EU. Most EU governments opted temporarily to suspend this right (something they are allowed to do for a transitional seven year period). Only Britain, Ireland and Sweden did not – and their economies experienced continued rapid growth. In retrospect, they stole a march on the rest of the EU.

The new EU accessions were a godsend for the government since it was able to allow entry to as many low skilled workers as the economy needed without passing new immigration bills. (They also, in effect, gave an amnesty to all those from eastern Europe working here illegally, something the government said it would never do.) Before that, in addition to the special groups of low-skilled workers allowed entry, labour demand continued to draw in workers from abroad illegally, despite their being treated with horrifying brutality on the borders and gross exploitation once here. And the faster the economy grew, the more workers were pulled in illegally.The white economy was shrinking before the government’s eyes.

The new EU member countries won’t save the British again. The east European economies are beginning to grow quickly and wages there are rising fast. They will try to keep their workers at home and get those in Britain to return.

If the rest of western Europe starts growing quickly, there will be a fierce scramble to grab whatever Polish plumbers, Latvian truck drivers or Lithuanian farm workers are available. Then western Europe will need to recruit Bulgarians, Romanians and Turks.And when the same thing happens there – the supply dries up – employers will have to start trawling for workers beyond the EU. Or illegal migration on a massive scale will make up the difference.

Governments can’t carry on living from hand to mouth, changing the rules every other year so that only lawyers – and traffickers – can find their way through the legal jungle and the black economy booms.

Global labour

What is happening here? Why, suddenly, can’t Britain keep going with its own workers?

The short answer is globalisation – the emergence of a set of global markets that are absorbing the national economies of the world in a single economy, so that it is no longer possible to manage one national patch in isolation from the rest of the world. It is as if Britain in the world is becoming like Leeds or Bristol in the UK. In terms of workers, a global labour market is already refashioning Britain on the inside.

As always under capitalism, the process is blind, out of control. Nobody intended it, foresaw it or managed it. Everybody – including the strongest governments and the multinationals – is dragged along, adjusting, willingly or not, at each stage. Being blind, the potential to damage the vulnerable is enormous, especially to undermine the progress of the last centuries in protecting workers.

Governments generally hate the process since they lose their old power to manage their economies without reference to anyone else.They particularly want to keep separate their own captive share of the world’s population, vital in the capacity to fight wars. Migration, they fear, muddles national loyalties and confuses the young men and women that can be summoned when needed to go out and kill foreigners. Xenophobia is not by accident the default setting of every established state. It goes with the attempt to drill us into uniformity to fight (even though the day of mass armies – like Trident submarines – is long since gone).

The fears of the government at the mixing of population has produced a decade of Labour ministers wittering on about the need for ‘integration’ – forcing immigrants to assimilate, to become ‘British’ (whatever that is).

The argument is that if people circulate freely, if they mix, they won’t know who they are and to what state they should be loyal. The power of state violence is undermined.That is the implicit agenda involved in immigration controls – not locking people out but locking them in.

For a couple of centuries, the national state forced the inhabitants and capital into alignment with its own interests. It invented the myth of the nation and pretended it had existed through all the centuries in which king and nobles rode roughshod over the rest.

But the operations of capitalism itself have now undermined this national order. Capital has escaped and gone global.The population is going to follow suit. More and more foreigners will live and work in Britain; more and more Brits will live and work abroad – or, in both cases, circulate (as they do now within Britain).Transnational families, living in many countries, will come to be the norm.And the mixing will undermine the power of the state to make national war.

Note that this is not about the old internationalism of the left, cooperation between nations, but about the abolition of nation states, the melding of us all into one world association of peoples – who don’t have to kill each other just to keep going.

Loosening controls

The loosening up of the migration system is excellent news for those of us who have always opposed immigration controls. But easing controls has exposed some real problems. It has exposed the abominable treatment of many migrant workers, especially those who migrate and work illegally (let alone refugees fleeing terror). This bad treatment, in turn, undermines conditions and pay for nativeborn workers, especially in low-paid jobs. And that contributes to support for the toxic ultra right-wing parties who would pull down the roof on us all.

The fierce competition for skilled workers (especially doctors and nurses) is also stripping the third world of its scarcest skills. Africa, with a quarter of the world’s ailments, has only 3 per cent of the world’s medical care.This competition is now coming to dominate the recruitment of foreign students – make them pay full fees for their education (and so subsidise the native born students) and then, after they’ve paid for their training, nail them down by offering them work and residence permits.

But loosening migration controls has also opened up new opportunities. Because of differences in the cost of living, a low income in Britain is a high income in, say, India – if you can earn here and live there.That explains why a young Warsaw doctor might think about doing a temporary job as a cleaner in London (‘deskilling’). Of course, the opposite applies: if you settle permanently in London, a low income will make sure you are and stay poor – even if you have a medical degree.The best deal for the migrant is temporary circulation so you can earn in one place and spend in another (or work, save and go home).

Remittances – workers sending money home to their families – have become a gigantic flow, the biggest mechanism in the world for the redistribution of income from rich to poor.They are increasing rapidly. This year, it is reckoned, the total will top $300 billion – nearly $200 billion of it to the third world, almost three times the value of official aid. And that is only what is officially recorded – in total it may be $400 billion, and in value terms, very much more (if you allow for those differences in cost of living). So western immigration controls are a most powerful obstacle to the reduction of poverty in the third world.

Migration is good in another way. It is not just that people find jobs, earn money and keep their families going at home. They also often learn new skills (including a foreign language) and gain valuable work experience, along with broader horizons. The professionals get much enriched skills and experience; temporary deskilling for some while they work abroad may go with skill enrichment for many others. If people circulated freely instead of getting stuck in one place or another, the third world could benefit from migration even more than from remittances. And if it were more organised, migration could become a deliberate strategy to raise massively the skills of the third world – and that could do something serious for the reduction of world poverty and the drive to achieve world full employment.

Practical reforms

There have always been people on the left who understood instinctively the reactionary role of immigration controls in enhancing the power of the state. But they have had no way of turning this principle into practical reforms, steps that could culminate in freedom for people to move about the world as they wish. That agenda seems both utopian and plain dotty in present electoral terms. Indeed, the left itself has often been imbued with nationalism, lining up with the state against immigrant workers in defence of jobs for the native born.

But now capitalism itself – those global markets – is beginning to force the freeing of peoples to move, to weaken the barriers between countries. Do we oppose it or welcome it – and bend all efforts to protect those most endangered by the process, migrants and native-born low paid workers?

We are already well into the transition to a single world economy. Over the next 50 years it will be accomplished. But as usual in these things, the old order will fight bitterly to hang on, destroying those who try to anticipate the process, to prepare so that people need not be sacrificed.

In an ideal world, the receiving and sending governments, with trade unions and NGOs, would set up a permanent Worker Recruitment Service to do three things:

  • Search out workers anywhere in the world willing – and brave enough – to migrate to work abroad, to link them to employers and to protect them (especially against the scourge of debt bondage) from the point of departure, during the time they work abroad and until they return;
  • Make sure each worker is able, at the same time, to undertake training while they are abroad – they all become students;
  • Ensure migrants do not undermine the pay and conditions of the native-born, receiving exactly the same deal as everybody else.

    Implicitly this assumes temporary circulation – people can get work abroad without going into permanent exile, without being forced either to emigrate or immigrate, much as they can and do inside Britain today.

    Guest-worker schemes have a bad name but, in principle, if policed properly, they provide an alternative to the much worse horrors of irregular migration and trafficking. This is not an end to immigration controls, but a halfway reform, a means to facilitate legal circulation on a scale where, at the end, the issue of immigration no longer matters. What about the fears of suburban Britain that once migrants have got in, they will stay put – and ‘live off welfare’? In fact, most people hate exile and can’t wait to get home – with the money for an operation, for school bills, for a house.

    What makes migrants stay? Certainly not access to miserable social security payments or the National Health Service. The most important reason is keeping access to work. Once the migrant has got past immigration controls, if they want to keep working, they have to settle. Much evidence shows that as soon as migrants get the right to circulate, to come and go (as the Poles and others from eastern Europe did in 2004), then people come and go. If it was possible to circulate, most people would prefer to stay living at home and go abroad temporarily only to work.

    States still react to this new mobility by stirring the auto-destruct instincts of the frightened, attempting to militarise borders and murdering those who try to cross them. But there is hope from another source: the actions of migrant workers. Despite the danger of arrest and expulsion, millions of those working illegally in the United States went on strike on 1 May 2006 to show how mighty America depends on their labour to survive. That is the voice of the new world working class, demanding its place in the new world order, demanding – what shameless impudence! – equality of rights with the native-born population.Nigel Harris is professor emeritus of the economics of the city at University College London


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