After years of being told that class is dead, the condition of workers has finally returned to the pages of newspapers and the mouths of TV commentators. But today there is only one legitimate concern that we are allowed to have – migration; low pay, bad housing and fear of the future officially exist now, but the only ‘authentic’ position promoted in the press is to blame these things on migrants, not bosses or landlords.
As a trade unionist, I reject the argument that stronger immigration controls are in the interests of the working class. It is important that unions resist pressure to scapegoat workers from other countries and recognise the real cause of low wages and poor working conditions.
Automation is ongoing and factories have been moving abroad for decades. Employers have more power because of harsher trade union laws and increasing casualisation.
An increase in the labour supply is also a factor, but it is not just migrant workers who are increasing the labour supply: Tory austerity has seen people on disability benefits being pushed onto inadequate unemployment benefits, forcing them to look for work; Single parents raising children are also being pushed into work; Unemployed people are being made to do workfare; There are more unpaid internships; People who have been laid off are looking for other kinds of jobs; and due to underemployment and real wages falling for a decade many people already in work are taking second jobs.
Neither migration nor periods of increased labour supply are new phenomena, either.
People have been moving to London to look for work for decades, whether from areas of the UK hit by deindustrialisation or from other countries, also often hit by deindustrialisation.
When in London, both groups of workers often have to live in bad overcrowded housing. This movement is only ‘different’ for workers from abroad if you believe that people who are not UK citizens should have less rights. Polish workers crowded several into a room are not ‘causing’ overcrowding or high rents or lower wages anymore than workers from deindustrialised areas in the UK are causing them.
Many waves of new workers have moved into wage labour in the past, most notably women who entered the labour market en masse in the twentieth century. Attempts to deal with this by putting up walls and attacking a section of the working class have always proved disastrous. The attitude to women working caused division in the labour movement across the Twentieth Century and worsened the conditions of women workers for generations.
Working class racism and opposition to freedom of movement is often blamed on ‘the left’ abandoning the interests of this working class, but in this criticism the left is treated as a big blanket left, all one thing, as if embattled shop stewards fighting redundancies and council tenants with no resources trying to fight multi million pound developments are the same as the Labour Party, or the TUC leadership, or the editors of the Guardian.
In the same rhetoric, migrant workers are being ‘othered’, talked about as a threat to the working class not part of it, and discussed as if they are intrinsically less politically engaged, and less committed to the people around them.
Paul Mason has said that “(Free movement) … promotes the ideal worker as a rootless person with no attachment to place or community, and with limited political rights”. But migrant workers are not rootless, many people were very attached to their home towns and did not want to leave them, but had to travel to find work. Most people aim to eventually settle in one place and put down new roots there. What makes people more and more transient, and what makes people more and more anxious, is increasing insecurity in housing and increasing casualisation in work. Six month tenancies, rising rents, easy evictions, low wages and short term and zero hours contracts are what keep people in a state of constant anxiety and keep them moving on.
It is much easier to attack migrant labourers than to take on the vested interests and the power of the landlords and bosses, but that’s where the real cause of our problems lie.
In challenging those with power, migrant workers can be an asset. Trade unionism and solidarity are not at all intrinsically or uniquely British activities. Among both migrants and British workers there are people with strong principles, with class consciousness, with a sense of solidarity, just as there are those who would sell their grandmother in the blink of an eye. Many migrant workers have very strong traditions of collective action, class solidarity and militancy and these traditions are needed and welcome in our movement. Militant strikes like the London cleaners campaigns and Deliveroo, prove that migrant workers have a lot to bring to the trade union movement. Historical strikes at Grunwick and Imperial Typewriters too are testament to the key role migrant workers have long played in class struggle in this country. The working class in Britain has not been just a British working class for generations.
Migrant workers are often in a more vulnerable position, they may not speak English, they may not know the law, this does not make them enemies of the working class, they are members of the working class and other workers need to reach out a hand to them.
5.2 million adults in England are ‘functionally illiterate’, this will make them more vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, do we try to exclude these workers too? Do we blame them for bad contracts for not being able to read the small print? No. Vulnerability to extra exploitation should not be something the trade unions and the workers movement blame on that person, it should be something that moves people to defend them.
We can strengthen the movement by helping people assert their rights through mutual aid, like the road sweepers I met in Spain who had learned to read and write through their trade union. Some unions in the UK run English classes for their members, some produce guides in other languages about workplace rights and health and safety. These are all steps in the right direction.
The trade union movement was born in conditions of insecurity, brutal state violence, with massive changes from industrialisation raging through society, and mass immigration as well, from Ireland and Europe. We can build again a fighting movement, but the trade unions need to push out from a shrinking comfort zone of secure workers and fight in casualised industries. They need to be involved in defending council housing and organising around terrible conditions in the private rented sector, they need to work with people on zero hours contracts and people on benefits and people without papers and people who come back from work and sleep in tents. They need to work with the whole working class and with all the varied and difficult conditions that involves.
The author would like to thank Jack Saunders for his help with this piece