Immigration Act intensifies exploitation

The Immigration Bill became law on 14 May. It includes:

These measures are the latest stages in a process of using immigration controls to divide the working class into special categories of super-exploited labour. They are a particularly vicious and racist element of the wider attempt to make it increasingly difficult to survive without accepting whatever work is on offer, no matter how low the wages or how poor the conditions. Tom Vickers reports.

OECD figures suggest that while migration to Britain and other imperialist countries slowed following the onset of the economic crisis, there has been no mass return. Income for many migrants has fallen, either as a result of employers pushing down wages or because people who were previously working several low waged jobs have lost one or more job. Migrants now account for more than half the homeless in London. Yet there has not been a proportional decrease in remittances; instead many migrants are going without food or other necessities in order to continue sending money to their country of origin. The reliance of family and friends on these payments is central to securing migrants’ consent to their continuing exploitation.

The approach of ‘managed migration’, first proclaimed by Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett in 2003, has been consolidated over the last decade. The ideal of policymakers across the EU is one of ‘circular migration’. This is an attempt to reduce workers as far as possible to units of labour power, flexible to the needs of capital to the point that their very existence within Britain is conditional on the sale of their labour power on terms set by the ruling class. In Britain this culminated in the points-based immigration system for non-EU migrants introduced by Labour in 2008, with a series of tiers and points allocated based on recognised skills and English language proficiency. Meanwhile migration routes that are not reliant on demand for labour have been increasingly restricted. Restrictions on legal rights have been backed by racist intimidation, from the advertising vans driven round London last summer, threatening ‘In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’, to a series of gloating pictures and videos posted from the Home Office Twitter account on Valentine’s Day, showing UKBA officers breaking up allegedly ‘sham’ marriage ceremonies. Immigration raids on businesses have become routine, as have immigration stops at tube stations in London.

At the top tier of the points-based system for migration from outside the EU, highly-skilled migrants are actively recruited from across the world, providing relatively cheap labour from the perspective of British capital because their upbringing and education were paid for by their country of origin.

On the bottom tier, undocumented migrants provide a pool of labour under pressure to accept whatever scraps of work they can get, concentrated in sectors such as domestic work and catering, and facing huge barriers to organise or make demands against employers for fear of arrest and deportation. Recent research in Yorkshire and Humber suggested conditions fitting the International Labour Organisation definition of forced labour are widespread.

Alongside this, the EU provides a steady supply of workers prepared to work in low-paid and insecure jobs. Initially this labour was provided largely by Eastern and Central European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, whose agriculture, industry and social provision had been wrecked with the destruction of socialism in the 1990s. More recently, they have been joined in growing numbers by people fleeing the economic crisis in southern Europe, with Spain now providing the fastest growing group of migrants in Britain. Since the beginning of the year the government has introduced a series of regulations to restrict EU migrants’ access to benefits for their first three months in the UK, and to cut off support in many cases after an individual has been unemployed for six months. This is backed by the increased use of powers to deport EU migrants who are sleeping rough or found to be without means to support themselves.

Before 2008 male migrants’ employment was concentrated in sectors such as manufacturing, finance and construction, all of which were severely affected by the crisis, and have consequently experienced rising unemployment. Migrants have often been the first to go: for example the unemployment rate in the construction sector increased by 4% in 2009 for British-born workers and by 8% for foreign-born workers. By contrast employment has continued to expand in sectors where female migrants are concentrated, such as care work and cleaning. One study suggested a fifth of all care workers looking after older people are migrant workers, with many employed by agencies. Exploitation is rife, including excessive hours, rates of pay below the minimum wage, deception about expected wage levels, little to no holidays, and cases of debt-bondage.

Much of the recent increase in migrant employment is part-time work that is poorly paid, precarious, including high rates of zero-hours contracts, and in poor conditions. A Polish-led organisation in the North East reports employers subjecting migrant labour to conditions that involve total disregard for health and safety, such as a woman forced to use a faulty floor polishing machine until it wrecked her back, and a man employed laminating bathroom furniture without an adequate face mask, leaving him vomiting at the end of each day. These workers are treated as disposable labour, and when their health is ruined to the point they can no longer work, they have even more limited access to benefits than British workers, putting them under pressure to leave Britain.

British agriculture and food processing continue to be highly dependent on migrant labour, leading the National Farmers Union (NFU) to express alarm at the labour shortages it expects to result from the scrapping of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in January 2014. Farm Minister George Eustice proposed to the NFU annual conference in February that labour shortages would be solved by sending British benefit claimants to work on farms: attacks on migrants and attacks on benefit claimants are two sides of the same coin.

The government’s attacks on migrants’ rights are not about migration as such – as usual the rich are free to move as they please, and no concerns are raised about the 5.5 million British citizens who live abroad. These measures are about splitting off sections of workers and subjecting them to special conditions of exploitation, as a key element of the offensive against the working class. Migrants will inevitably resist, as refugees have been doing within detention centres. It is in the interests of other sections of the working class, who also face attacks from the ruling class, to stand in solidarity with them.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014