The left can’t fight the victimisation of migrants without an internationalist class strategy, argues Hannah Cross

The way migration is discussed in the public sphere is dehumanising of migrant workers and the labouring classes in which they find themselves. The anti-migration side dominates, constructed by the state and media. With capitalism in a phase of systemic crisis, the hostile rhetoric towards immigrants is ramped up and a shadow of fascism looms over a divided society. The pro-migration reaction positions itself as progressive, highlighting the need for migrant workers to prop up labour markets and support ageing populations in healthcare and other basic services. It suggests that immigrants are particularly hard-working and more accepting of ‘unskilled’ work than the native-born population. These ‘anti’ and ‘pro’ migration positions each divide migrant workers from the native-born working class and create monolithic versions of each.

These instrumentalist narratives found in the political class are based on what migrants are bringing to ‘us’, the nation. There is the presumption of a continuous flow of people who want to enter the country, who can be controlled and sorted depending on ‘our’ needs. The pandemic and its lockdowns made visible the cleaning, care work, food production and other essential services that are often reliant on migrant workers. Yet this popular appreciation, important as it is, rarely expanded to questioning the displacements that make people willingly work in exhausting, unsafe and precarious conditions, or what kind of economy makes life-sustaining work the least valued of all labour. The imperialist displacement that tears families apart and forces people into instability and exploitative labour markets, the legal-bureaucratic structure that creates discriminatory patterns of mobility and varied levels of citizenship, the repression of the border system and intense labour competition are not to be celebrated.

Imperialism, racism and labour exploitation are interdependent elements of the migration regime which ensure the continued dominance of the ruling class over the countries that both send and receive migrants. A genuinely progressive approach to migration needs to recognise the common interests of the labouring classes, domestically and internationally. The demands of the internationalist labour movement need to focus on the basis of solidarity between actively divided groups, on the necessity for equality of movement between countries and regions, and on the transition to an economy that is directed towards a basic level of subsistence and enjoyment in society. This internationalism is shared by working classes in oppressing and oppressed countries.

Migration, class and labour markets

The mobility of ‘human capital’ in the interests of labour demand and arbitrage is encouraged by international organisations like the World Bank and the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development. Competitiveness and flexibility are at the centre of neoliberal dogma: the thinking is that organised labour and state protections cause inflexibility in the labour market, leading to unemployment and monetary instability. Thus labour must be deregulated in ways that bring more freedom and profit to employers. As a consequence, the informal economy and non-standard employment relationships have expanded, which can circumvent the minimum wage and other formal protections.

In capitalist imperialism, governments and global institutions use migration as a deliberate device to keep labour costs down for the purpose of economic growth. Migrant workers in the global North originate in different backgrounds and do not constitute a single class, but are mainly directed to sectors that cannot be relocated to the periphery, including construction, agriculture, domestic work, care and health work, security and other services. There is also a concentration in the highest-paid end of the labour market, where there is greater freedom of movement.

Heavily restricted migrant labour is one way to ensure more flexibility, as workers’ limited citizenship and circulation rights reduce the scope for regulatory protections and wage bargaining. In the post-war era, immigrant labour, found in guestworker programmes and other active state policies, was regulated to prevent undercutting and to slow the general rate of increase of wages, rather than to reduce them. While this is seen as a ‘golden age’ for capitalism, racialised and gendered migrant workers from former colonies faced restricted circulation, discrimination and super-exploitation, while host countries also benefited from outsourcing the renewal of the labour force to sending communities. This core dynamic of capitalism was well understood as a cause of racial discrimination, inequality and the division of the working class until the post-materialist turn of the European Left began to mystify social division, even as its structural factors accelerated in intensity.

On the battleground of immigration policy during the Corbyn years of the Labour Party, the UK Left predominantly focused on the economic benefits of immigration alongside humanitarian appeals, drawing on bourgeois economics that showed a positive net impact on the labour market. The headline findings of a Work Foundation report, for example, were that migration has a benign effect on the economy, does not force down wages, and offers economic benefits in the long-term. It found that the labour market had ‘softened’ as the result of mobility from the EU accession states, which had allowed employers to keep wages low and the Bank of England to keep interest rates down.

Ultimately, this type of approach views labour migration as a mechanism to grow the economy and relieve employers of tight labour markets that might force them to increase wages. It is not one that focuses on the interests of workers as a class, which a social-democratic project ought to be doing. Moreover, through the lens of bourgeois pro-immigration arguments, a points-based system and differential treatment of migrants from outside the EU is viewed as a success, yet it is the least progressive policy from a labour perspective as it reinforces the legal and bureaucratic structure of a global apartheid. It divides the working class both within a nation and internationally.

Class not nation

The nation is treated as a coherent group with shared interests, but class divisions are growing ever wider, and labour’s share of national wealth was decreasing even before the cost-of-living crisis. It was decreasing while the economy was growing, which has been a global trend since the 1990s. Labour market data generally shows a positive net effect of immigrant labour on wages, yet while medium and high-wage earners are likely to gain from immigrant labour, low-waged workers are more likely to lose.

Reversals in employment legislation have allowed undercutting in critical parts of the labour market, and this is likely to affect recent or earlier cohorts of immigrant workers or ethnic minorities as much as the rest of the working class. Moreover, there is a lack of data to reflect all parts of the labour market. Short-term migrant workers are missing from national surveys, as are asylum seekers or those working without legal rights, and also people living in hotels, caravan parks, halls of residence, and other non-household residences.

In the UK’s low-wage economy, services such as cleaning, domestic work and catering are outsourced to a low-paid, flexible and economically insecure migrant workforce that is segregated and lacks freedom of movement. Global hotel chains recruit subcontracted workers who are paid per room cleaned, leaving them with lower pay than the minimum wage. A Permanent People’s Tribunal report in 2018 noted that employers replaced a mainly black and ethnic-minority workforce with Romanian migrant workers who spoke little English, did not know their rights and were discouraged from joining a union. Migrant cleaners working for London Underground have also faced increasing workloads with lower pay, and been threatened with deportation and replacement if they join a union.

The food industry, meeting supermarkets’ just-in-time production aims, faces conditions of forced labour, abuse and extortion. Transnational corporations force extreme competitiveness on sub-contractors: workers in food and retail face non-payment of wages, confiscation of passports, overcrowded accommodation, bullying, racism, sexism and extortion in visa fees, accommodation rates, access to finance and other necessities. With post-Brexit labour shortages, six-month seasonal work visas have even led supermarkets to report concerns over debt bondage and human-rights abuses in the food industry, with Indonesian workers recently being unable to pay off their debts and threatened with deportation.

The indications are that Brexit’s end to free movement from the EU did not lead to better wages and working conditions as labour demand outstripped the supply; instead it has aggravated cheap labour practices. This is because we do not live in a simple world of supply and demand, where a reduction of foreign labour will reduce competition and enhance the bargaining power of native-born workers. Instead, we have a political economy based on historical racism and discrimination which assigns varied wages and conditions according to ancestry and immigration status.

The imperialist creation of labour reserves through military operations, neo-colonial corporate power in the global South, and intra-European core-periphery relations, ensures the supply of labour in jobs that ‘native-born workers don’t want to do’. Of course, it is the degradation of the work and the level of exploitation that makes it so undesirable, not the laziness of the native-born working classes whose citizenship status less easily enables super-exploitation.

It is borders that produce this cheap labour by determining the rights and citizenship status of those who cross them. They reinforce discrimination and social division, not only surrounding countries, but also permeating the fabric of society, so they are certainly not the answer. The only way to end border repression is to destroy their political and economic logic.

Capitalism, labour and the fight against fascism

In what has been described as the ‘trickle-down economics of the Left’, a narrative that the dynamism of immigrant labour benefits all, there is a void in the social-democratic labour movement that neglects the everyday realities and experiences of the lowest-paid workers. This detachment from the working classes and nation-centric, liberal dogmatism lie behind the opprobrium heaped against major figures of the labour movement like Jeremy Corbyn and Eddie Dempsey when they discuss the politics of cheap labour. Dempsey’s comments may have been clumsy at times, but both figures have demonstrable anti-racist records, and make active efforts to defend migrants’ rights and unify the labour movement. Keir Starmer’s support of more bordering and control to address cheap labour – this nativist narrative – is consequently able to step into the analytical void, as Dempsey warned.

Dempsey’s ‘offence’ – his attempt to explain how working-class people turn to the far right – was an essential tool in beating the fascists of 1930s London. The Communist Party’s response to the British Union of Fascists’ exploitation of divisions between Irish and Jewish communities was not only to challenge the propaganda, but also to organise rent strikes and other concrete actions between the communities.

Phil Piratin, a leader of the strategy, reflected, ‘while we would fight Mosley’s thugs, where did you get by fighting the people?’ Community actions to secure the livelihoods of BUF members helped to neutralise the threat. Similarly in the US, the most powerful labour struggles have united communities in the fight against poverty, including Fred Hampton’s ‘Rainbow Coalition’, an alliance between the Illinois Panthers, the Young Patriots Organization and the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican group. They held unity demonstrations, fought police brutality and provided basic community services in neglected neighbourhoods. The International Workers of the World have also had a historical role in building class consciousness against state and corporate strategies of racism and divisive immigration policies. The violent state responses to such struggles are revealing of their threat to ruling-class power.

The nationalist left, if this is not too much of a contradictory term, fancies the idea of a labour aristocracy: a nativist working class which enjoys the benefits of imperialism and a relatively higher position than migrant workers. This class collaborationist politics means there is no challenge to the real social relations of private property and capital accumulation, and the hostilities and divisions within the working class will continue.

In the deep and long-standing roots of our cost-of-living crisis, the labour movement seems to be developing other ideas. The RMT has incorporated subcontracted cleaners on the railways in their first national strike, the Royal College of Nursing has challenged contracts that force migrant workers to stay with their employers and pay extortionate fees, and the PCS union, which represents border guards, has challenged the government’s abuses of the asylum system and its programme to deport people to Rwanda. Migrant workers have often been at the forefront of labour action globally and in the UK, with incorporation in the formal unions following grassroots syndicalist worker organisation.

When it comes to workers being divided within the same roles and workplace, it will be important to disentangle the genuine labour struggles found in a racialised, divided labour market from the xenophobic content with which they are often associated. In the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes of 2009 for example – which responded to Total’s contracting of Italian and Portuguese engineering construction workers with pay below the nationally agreed rates – the political and media class painted a picture of a nationalistic, xenophobic workforce in Lincolnshire and elsewhere, ignoring any evidence to the contrary. Journalists focused on the English and British flags found at demonstrations and on the ‘British jobs for British workers’ phrase, which had been a play on Gordon Brown’s promise.

Yet a vocal minority of BNP members was turned away from the strike, and members of the Unite and GMB unions made it clear that their fight was with the employers, not posted workers. The demands included the unionisation of all migrant labour and union assistance to immigrant workers, including the provision of interpreters. The BBC was forced to apologise for cutting short a statement by a striker complaining about segregated working conditions, which made him appear racist.

If the media and political class had focused on the deficient regulatory environment that allowed a multinational corporation to degrade the conditions of all workers, on the attempts of the labour movement to unite and challenge their employers, and on the limitations to solidarity, including the precarious status of posted workers and the presence of the far right, the latter would have been less emboldened and the workers less alienated. A fair representation of working-class attitudes would make it more difficult for opportunist politicians of the centre to cite an inbuilt hostility towards migrants in the working classes as a reason for more borders and control, while failing to improve labour conditions and provide resources to divided communities.

The elites that are repressing the labour movement benefit from class prejudice as much as anti-migrant hostility, and both attitudes have deep ideological roots in British imperialism and Victorian pseudoscience. They need to be tackled together if we are to challenge the state’s oppression of the labouring classes, fight racism and dismantle the reactionary interests surrounding this chaotic government.

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