Exploited workers, racist rhetoric: immigration does not cut wages

fight racism4

Political comment by the Editorial Board of FRFI on the review of the report Brexit and the impact of immigration on the UK

The Editorial Board of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! feels it necessary to draw out an important political point that the article below does not make explicit. Racism is the form that national oppression takes in an imperialist nation. That is why the RCG opposes all British immigration controls. It has always been our position that in an imperialist country, immigration restrictions must necessarily be racist. This applies both to claims for asylum and to the ‘management’ of ‘economic migration’. The RCG does not accept the political framework of the report reviewed below. Such studies often disagree with one another, because so many factors influence outcomes at particular times, in particular sectors, and for particular grades of workers. But communists have a fundamentally different starting point: we do not ask whether the existence of one group of workers is good or bad for another group of workers, but how we can defend the interests of the working class as a whole. The article below has utilised the framework of the report in order to show that immigration does not undercut the wages of the British-born working class. This is insufficient: whatever the conclusion of this study, it does not affect the essential communist standpoint on racism and immigration.

31 October 2017

Exploited workers, racist rhetoric: immigration does not cut wages

The myth that low-paid migrants are to blame for falling wages and unemployment is very popular. However, a new report by the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE, Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK, examines empirical data on the impact of EU migration on wages, unemployment and service provision. Its findings contradict racist ruling class rhetoric: deteriorating living standards are entirely the consequence of the unending crisis of capitalism. Seamus Padraíc and Matt Glass report.

The report shows there is no correlation between levels of EU migration and falling wages. Median wages for British-born citizens grew from the late 1990s until the global financial crash. This coincided with a period of sustained growth in EU migration. Wages since the crisis, however, have fallen by around 10%. When examining different wage levels in all 201 local authorities, the report again finds no correlation between EU migration and the wages of the British-born.

The report finds that the unemployment rate among the British-born has ‘risen recently in the period when EU migration is also rising.’ On closer inspection, however, this is deceptive: unemployment has, at other times, fallen while EU immigration has risen. Charting the data back to 1975, no statistically relevant correlation can be found between EU immigration and the unemployment rate among the British-born. The relevant correlation for unemployment is with ‘the economic cycle’. The report breaks the data down by each individual local authority. In some authorities, rising immigration is accompanied by rising employment; in others, falling immigration by rising unemployment; while in yet others, rising immigration by rising unemployment. Again, therefore, no overall correlation is found between EU immigration and unemployment.

Surveying recent studies, the report also finds:

  • no effect on crime from the big 2004 increase in immigration from East European.

  • no greater usage of doctors and hospitals by immigrants relative to the UK-born, and little effect on NHS waiting times.

  • accounting for demographic, economic and regional circumstances, immigrant households are less likely to be in social housing than their UK-born counterparts. Lack of access by British-born people to social housing has more to do with the falling supply of social housing.

  • EU immigrants are less likely than UK nationals to claim unemployment benefit, housing benefit or tax credits

Given that unemployment, crime and wages are in fact uncorrelated with EU immigration, the report asks: ‘Why does it feel like immigration hurts jobs?’ The report does not attempt to answer this question directly, but the answer is clear: racism.

When questioned on leaked proposals to drastically reduce the rights of EU migrants after Brexit, the Prime Minister Theresa May defended the draft plans ‘because of the impact that net migration can have on people, on access to services, on infrastructure. But, crucially, it often hits those at the lower end of the income scale hardest.’ The evidence in the LSE report belies this narrative and points to a government covering up for its own gutting of social services and failure to maintain national infrastructure.

The Labour Party, too, wants to use Brexit as an opportunity to fine-tune Britain’s immigration controls in the interests of capital. On 6 September, Shadow Home Secretary and key Jeremy Corbyn ally Diane Abbott published a statement saying that: ‘Labour wants fair rules and reasonable management of migration in accordance with the needs of our economy and our values as a party.’ The Labour Campaign for Free Movement released a highly misleading statement:

‘A system of free movement is the best way to protect and advance the interests of all workers, by giving everyone the right to work legally, join a union and stand up to their boss without fear of deportation or destitution.’

This whitewashes Britain’s racist border regime by misrepresenting what underpins ‘freedom of movement’. Thus, Britain detained 4,699 EU citizens for ‘immigration offences’ in 2016. Labour councils in London conspire with the Home Office in deportations of destitute migrants,1 and Bristol council is set to follow suit.2 EU migrants do not have freedom of movement; they have freedom to work. Their rights are totally subject to the needs of British capital, and will not be defended by any of the bourgeois parties.

The question remains, of course, of why EU migration has no effect on the wages of the British-born. For this, we can look to a 2011 study by the Centre for Economic Performance, which points to segregation in the labour market: EU migrants do not generally compete for the same jobs as British-born workers. The only discernible impact of immigration on wages is on other recent migrants, because they do compete for the same jobs and are more likely to have to work for equally low pay in equally bad conditions.

One section of the labour market that is spectacularly segregated is seasonal work picking fruit and vegetables. A survey of 13,400 workers recruited for this sector between January and May found that only 14 were British.3 Almost all were eastern European, with the majority from Bulgaria or Romania. These workers act as a cheap pool of reserve labour for British imperialism. The lower cost of living in Eastern Europe (where family often stays), the fact that the home country has paid the costs of education and training, and insecure status in Britain, relegate these workers to a super-exploited layer of the working class.

The driving force behind recent struggles from Deliveroo to the LSE cleaners’ strike has been migrant workers fighting low pay and dangerous and precarious conditions. Attempts to blame low wages on migration are not only contradicted by the facts. The Labour Party shamelessly uses this to cover up for its failure to challenge attacks on workers’ rights. Migrant workers are playing a frontline role in workplace struggles, and it is in the interest of British workers to fight alongside them. Those who call themselves socialists ought to recall Marx’s 1870 letter to Sigfrid Meyer:

‘Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians… This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.’4 [Marx’s emphasis]

1 ‘British state racism: “the hostile environment”’ FRFI 256 (April/May 2017) www.revolutionarycommunist.org/britain/fight-racism/4753-bs050417

2 ‘Council to work with immigration enforcement to deport rough sleepers’ The Bristol Cable, September 2017 https://thebristolcable.org/2017/09/council-to-work-with-immigration-enforcement-to-deport-rough-sleepers/

3 ‘Farms hit by labour shortage as migrant workers shun “racist” UK’, The Guardian, June 2017 www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/22/farms-hit-by-labour-shortage-as-migrant-workers-shun-racist-uk

4 www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm


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