Migrant workers hit by capitalist crisis

Since 2000 the Labour government has been rearranging the immigration system, primarily to exclude black workers from Asia and Africa. Immigration of low-skilled workers from countries outside the EU has been shut off via the Points-Based System, while short-term immigration from the former socialist countries of eastern Europe has been encouraged. By April 2008 there were 665,000 migrants from eastern Europe living in Britain – around two-thirds from Poland.

Marx explained how capitalism relies on a ‘reserve army of labour’ and how this ‘mass of human material always ready for exploitation’ keeps wages low for the mass of the working class and maintains workers in a state of uncertainty and instability, knowing they may be hired and fired as needed.

Migrant workers in Britain from A8 countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary) are mainly young and single; 75% are 16-39 years old. They are eligible for some welfare benefits while working and, after a year’s continuous full-time employment, for unemployment benefit. Migrants from the ‘A2 countries’, Romania and Bulgaria, have fewer entitlements and are mainly restricted to temporary work in agriculture or food-processing, where the labour is hard and low paid and there is always a seasonal labour shortage. Many are on piece work, where instead of being paid by the hour, they are paid by the punnet of fruit picked or chicken plucked. Piece rates are supposed to be equivalent to the minimum hourly wage but there are numerous ways employers get around this, such as recording fewer hours than really worked or deducting ‘expenses’ for tools, transport and overcrowded and overpriced accommodation.

Many east European workers are registered as self-employed and find work via agencies. They are denied basic employment rights such as holiday pay, sick pay, redundancy pay and the right to claim unfair dismissal. In June 2008 The Guardian exposed a case where east Europeans, employed via a maze of sub-contracting agencies to work on the construction site of a government-backed PFI hospital in Nottinghamshire, were paid less than £1 per hour, with one worker taking home £8.80 for a 37-hour week, and another netting £66 for working 70 hours after deductions for accommodation and tools. The construction industry scheme, which registers the workers as technically self-employed, also deducted £76.80 from their wages each week.

The capitalist crisis that is now hitting Britain is tearing through the economies of eastern Europe as well. Migrant workers are therefore forced to choose between two precarious situations. According to the Federation of Poles in Great Britain (ZPWB) the response is polarised, with working families with children choosing to stay on a long-term basis, while single Poles and childless couples, particularly those who had been living in rural areas, are leaving in large numbers. Up to 200,000 are thought to have left in the last year, having lost their jobs or due to poor employment conditions.
Home Office statistics released in November 2008 showed a drop of 36% of A8 nationals registering to work in Britain, with a similar statistic for A2 nationals. Increased unemployment among migrant workers already here has led to a high incidence of homelessness, especially in London and Belfast. In January 2009 The Times reported that one in five of the approximately 3,000 street-homeless people in London are from eastern Europe.

Migrant workers are victims of the crisis of capitalism but as recession deepens they will increasingly be scapegoated. The ZPWB says that there has already been a 20% rise in racist attacks on Polish workers in the last year and has published details of 60 incidents, ranging from graffiti, assaults and arson to murder. Anti-racists need to organise urgently against the rising tide of xenophobia.
Annie Richardson and Nicki Jameson


Racist incidents against Polish people in November and December 2008 include:
• Kettering – Polish man sustains fractured skull in racist attack by four men
• Louth – Butlins employee hits Polish co-worker in the face after yelling ‘Go back to Poland’
• Bradford – Polish man attacked with brick by teenager
• Kingston – Two Polish men attacked on night bus with bottles need 43 stitches
• Linlithgow – Polish family forced to close food store after suffering racist graffiti and break-ins
• Mansfield – Man appears in court for ramming wheelie bin against door of Polish man and making racist comments
• Airdrie – Polish brothers attacked with flammable liquid in assault by 10 youths
• Caernarfon – Man imprisoned for a year for punching and racially abusing Polish man waiting for ferry to Ireland

At the Labour Party conference in 2007 Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised ‘British jobs for British workers’, deliberately pandering to national chauvinism. As we go to press Brown has been forced to simultaneously preach against protectionism and defend his slogan as striking construction workers took up his call. The slogan has become the rallying call in a series of disputes and demonstrations where foreign contractors are employing foreign workers instead of local labour. The Labour Prime Minister has unleashed a torrent of racism. 

FRFI 207 February / March 2009


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