migrants demo Protestors at a pro-migrant demo, London 2015. Photo: Flickr/Ilias Bartolini

Low wages are not caused by immigration, but by a profoundly anti-working class economic approach, writes Richard Allday

There is currently a debate over how the left should respond to limits on the ‘free movement of labour’, and its effect on Britain’s access to the single market of the EU.

I intend to argue that the left has traditionally argued for a world in which workers are not divided by nationality or ethnicity (or gender, or religion, or any other socially constructed difference). For this reason, I believe all socialists should support the right of workers to live on whatever particular patch of ground they find most congenial.

The current argument over defending the ‘free movement of labour’ is coming from a slightly different angle, and while not conceding one jot on our principles, this should not entail swallowing capitalist propaganda. We should not allow employers to use the perfectly legitimate desire of migrant workers to move wherever they like in order to increase their exploitation or that of workers in the countries to which they move.

Since the end of September, I have been in the fortunate position of speaking to hundreds of Unite reps and activists, at dozens of workplaces in the East of England. The conversation has been quite specifically on the economic and social outfall of the referendum result and Brexit.

The East of England, with the exception of a few of the urban centres, voted by a significant margin for ‘Leave’. The majority of the reps and activists I spoke to were split more along the national average (ie 50/50). The referendum campaign itself was extremely divisive, such that longstanding workmates and friends, even immediate family members, stopped talking to each other after the result. It took several weeks in many cases for relations to be established.

One fundamental reason for this was the assumption by many remainers that the Leave vote was inherently racist – a charge that was bitterly resented by many leavers. There is no doubt that the Leave campaign played to a reactionary, chauvinist theme, but the idea that the Remain campaign was more progressive (remember that Cameron and Clegg, the architects of austerity, were the chief proponents, and Theresa May, then Tory Home Secretary, sided with them) is difficult to swallow. Remember that both sides of the campaigns accepted uncritically the core message, that immigration is a problem – neither camp had clean hands.

This issue should have been put to rest by late August, when a poll (reported in the Guardian, late August/early September) found that 78% of Leave voters supported the right to remain of EU workers currently in the UK. This makes it very clear that the Leave vote was only partially based on the public campaigns, but was far more complicated.

In almost every meeting I had, immigration was cited as one factor in Leave voters’ decision; this was almost invariably accompanied by reference to pressures in three key areas of their and their communities’ experience: health provision; education; and housing (curiously, ‘migrants taking our jobs’ or ‘migrants are undercutting wages, etc’ featured far less often, in only a minority of meetings). Now these are concrete, material concerns that reflect a concrete social reality – a health service approaching collapse; an education system that is chronically underfunded; and demand for housing that cannot be met because of the disappearance of council housing stock.

What I learned very early on is that if you merely point out that migrants are not the cause of these problems, that it is the consequence of longstanding neo-liberal economics, or austerity, the reps did not respond with “Oh! I see now”. Far more common was the interpretation that their criticisms were being dismissed as mistaken (at best) or racist (at worst).

If however, their concerns were taken seriously (as they deserve to be, being objectively true as far as provision of services goes), then a point of agreement could be reached among both remainers and leavers, that there needs to be serious discussion about how to oppose these deficiencies. Once this point is reached, it makes sense to both sides to concentrate on areas of agreement to oppose the cuts, and leave the differences to one side – for the time being.

Consequently, it becomes possible, when leavers are convinced you take their concerns seriously, and agree with them in condemning crap service provision, to demonstrate in practice that the most effective opposition lies in attacking the underlying causes.

A large proportion of Leave voters understand that it is not increased population that is the problem (this should increase the tax take, and therefore increase provision), it is a profoundly anti-working class economic approach that means we are always at the back of the queue when it comes to government priorities.

Interestingly, almost as common (among remainers as well as leavers) as an explanation of the motives driving the Leave vote were 3 other sentiments: it was “a vote for change”; it was ‘”two fingers up to the establishment”; and it was a vote to “take back control” (sometimes expressed as “a vote to take our country back”). This suggests a vote profoundly influenced by a sense of estrangement, a vote in protest at being sidelined and ignored, which is far different to the analysis offered by the professional pundits at the time.

I have gone through these arguments in some detail (though not as much as they deserve) because I think some background is needed, about the terrain on which we are fighting, when it comes to ‘freedom of movement’ and why we (and Corbyn and McCluskey) should not be constrained by defending a concrete reality that exists for the benefit of capital (‘free movement of labour’), while not conceding an inch on a principle that is essential to a strong labour movement (that workers have nothing to gain from adopting their rulers’ notions of borders and national privilege/exclusivity).

Corbyn has been under intense pressure to concede ground on freedom of movement of labour, from that section of the political elite that is determined to keep immigration as a key tool in their ‘dog whistle’ toolkit. It is ironic, is it not, that among Corbyn’s most strident critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are some of the most rabid pro-EU propagandists. It also helps clarify my opening paragraphs on the distinction between defending the ‘free movement of labour’ and defending workers’ rights to free movement. (Incidentally, the preferred response of the right wing to the ‘problem’ – to remove the entitlement to benefits – will give a green light to employers to intimidate and screw non-UK workers, because they will be desperate to keep their jobs, under almost any conditions, because the alternative will be penury. A bosses’ paradise, maybe, but any benefit to workers? I think not.)

The free movement of labour is one of the four cardinal ‘freedoms’ intrinsic to the EU project. The other three are: the free movement of capital; the free movement of services; and the free movement of products. Think this one through – all of these ‘freedoms’ are predicated on promoting the free access, for our rulers, to essential components of a capitalist economy. ‘Labour’ in this sense is not workers, real individuals, but a necessary part of the production process, to which capitalists want free access, in the most convenient form, to benefit their pursuit of profit.

This is why there is no compulsion on employers to provide fair and equal treatment to different element of ‘labour’. This is the logic behind the Posted Workers Directive, which allows employers to import labour from the cheapest available source in the same way as it allows them to reduce production costs by shifting capital and investment from place to place, according to where it provides the highest return.

In the same way, the Working Time Directive claimed to protect employees from being forced to work excessive hours, and then promptly invented loopholes when specific industries reported problems (e.g. the road haulage industry, which was originally provided a derogation [exemption] from the WTD, until a way round the WTD could be found – in Periods of Availability, and Rest mode on the tachographs – which means HGV drivers can still be compelled to work back to back 15-hour shifts; I understand a similar loophole has been foisted onto airline pilots and other aircrew).

I raise this because it is important for socialists to realize that the ‘free movement of labour’ promoted by the EU views workers not as persons, but as a resource to be exploited. It is a matter of indifference to the EU, whether Ford seeks to build new factories in Romania (and close existing factories in Germany, Belgium or the UK), or transplant Romanian labour to existing production facilities (and in the process, effectively shut down whole chunks of Romanian communities). The decision is down to Ford, as to which offers the best return. Undoubtedly, a factor in Ford’s decision will be the fallout in social, industrial and political terms of whichever course is pursued. It is certainly of benefit to Ford if the opposition can be restricted to complaints about unfair competition from foreign workers, rather than unfair treatment by the employer.

What the left needs to do is decouple the right of free movement from the employers ‘right’ to intensify exploitation. Our slogan should be ‘free movement without exploitation’. It should be illegal to use tricks like the Posted Workers Directive to super-exploit migrants and so attempt to lower domestic wages or worsen conditions.

What we should reject is the idea that exploitation can be dealt with by immigration controls. Refusing workers from outside the UK access to opportunities is irrelevant to dealing with employers who try to use migrants as super-exploitable labour. No-one seriously argues that a plumber moving from Walsall to Woolwich is reducing wages in Woolwich by so doing, so why would the case be different just because the plumber moved from Warsaw?

This is not a new argument for the labour movement; we had it in the 50s, with the Windrush generation of West Indian migrant workers, encouraged by a British government advertising campaign, when our transport and health services were desperate for labour (incidentally, the Tory Health Minister who oversaw this programme was one Mr. Enoch Powell). We had it again in the late 60s, with the advent of workers from the Indian subcontinent. In each case, there was a section of the ruling class that saw the opportunity to impose super-exploitation on this new section of workers, by isolating and demonizing them; seeking to impose worse pay and conditions on them, using this to lever similar reductions on the existing work-force, and seeking to blame the victims for the problem.

Sadly, there has always been the need for argument on our side to counter the undoubted success this propaganda had among sections of workers. But it did not succeed through moralizing or posturing. As long as there is a material reality, of rotten housing, bad working conditions, rotten provision of essential services etc., there will be justified resentment from working people. If we cannot provide concrete, effective, ways of resisting or changing these realities, there will be working people who will link increase in demand for scarce resources with the cause of the scarcity.

In one sense, this argument seems common sense: if there is a scarcity, increased demand will make it more acute. The question is, if you reduce the increased demand, do you get a decent service? Clearly, the current crisis in A&E departments countrywide, cannot be linked with a massive rise in migrants – because there hasn’t been such a rise in the last few months! Likewise, the closure of 500 GP surgeries over the last year has far more to do with increased queues at the remaining surgeries (c.f. Mona Kamal in Counterfire this week). But people in the instant of encountering these problems do not have access to these arguments – and even if they did, would probably be in such discomfort, or too angry, to want to listen. What they want is access to a doctor, not a lecture on macro-economics.

It is when people see the possibility of focusing their anger, that they are prepared to listen to those heading it as to the way forward. If the left merely stands aside criticizing, we deserve to (and will) be ignored. If we act together in areas of common agreement, we earn (and will almost always be accorded) the right to be heard.

The duty of socialists is not to carp and snipe from the sidelines, but to offer concrete solutions to concrete problems.

Corbyn and McDonnell stated 6 months ago, at Unite’s 2016 Policy Conference, their intention if they form the next government, to introduce legislation requiring employers wishing to import labour into the UK to first reach an agreement with the relevant trade union. This is not a restriction on workers’ rights. The vast bulk of workers migrating to Britain come to fill posts to which they have been recruited (directly, or through agencies) in their home country. Very few decide to up sticks, and travel to a foreign country where they cannot speak the language, do not have accommodation etc., and do not know how they are going to survive financially. This is why seeking to control employers’ exploitation is not restricting workers’ rights – in fact the opposite.

There would be little value to an employer to recruit abroad if there was no financial gain, unless there was a real lack of appropriately skilled labour domestically. Which is why McDonnell went on to say that part of the negotiated agreement would have to be a programme to develop the domestic skill base in the industry affected. Thus, you stop super-exploitation, and you create employment opportunities – all without having to concede to the chauvinist arguments of the right wing. So when Tom Watson (Deputy leader of the Labour Party, and inveterate conspirer against Corbyn) claims, as he did last week, that the Labour Party ‘has no policy on freedom of movement, and we desperately need one”, what he means is “I don’t agree with Corbyn’s position, and I desperately want to change it”.

At the same conference, Len McCluskey took great pleasure in announcing to delegates the strike taking place by migrant workers, members of Unite, supported by their UK fellow members, to gain parity of pay – a victory which overnight almost trebled the pay of these members. “This” declared McCluskey, “is how Unite protects our members! Collectively. United. By organising against injustice. and rejecting attempts to divide us.” The conference responded with enthusiastic applause.

A good way to start would be to help build the march to defend our NHS, called by the Peoples Assembly (and supported by Unite, among many other trades unions) on March 4. I don’t mean come on the coaches, which others have organized, and tell us where we are going wrong, I mean positively engage with your local PA and help build the protest.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.