Vittorio Longhi’s The Immigrant War makes a compelling case for why migrant labour needs to be defended against attack. In doing so conditions for all workers would be raised, finds Paul Hartley

Vittorio Longhi, The Immigrant War: A global movement against discrimination and exploitation (Policy Press 2012), x, 156pp.

David Cameron announced recently that, in advance of the lifting of restrictions on migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria later in the year, the government seeks to restrict immigrants’ access to public services: legal aid, housing, healthcare and benefits. The desire, the government claims, is to make Britain less attractive to immigrants and to reduce its ‘pull factor’. Similar policies are being adopted by governments across Europe. The Immigrant War is a powerful argument against such policies. Primarily, it documents the conditions in which migrants live and work across the world, the many injustices they face on a daily basis, and the attacks on their rights and living standards. Yet it also looks for practical solutions to what Vittorio Longhi calls a global war against immigrants.

The book focuses on the conditions of migrants in four regions with very different processes of economic, legal and social development: the Gulf states, the US, France and Italy. Longhi argues that despite the differences in these regions there is a convergence towards the same model of exclusion and segregation of migrants. Certain politicians may take a particularly draconian line towards immigrants, such as Sarkozy’s promise to get rid of the ‘scum’ after the 2005 riots in the Parisian banlieues. Certain countries may pass particularly savage anti-immigration laws, such as the law signed in Arizona in 2010 that allows the immediate arrest of anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant found without documents, and which paves the way for racial profiling. Yet these elements are parts of a global system of capital and migration flows, which must be understood in its totality if it is to be resisted.

Modern global capitalism relies on mass migration, which supplies an international reserve labour army of both cheap labour and experienced, qualified professionals. The importance of mass migration to the world economy is illustrated by the fact that in many of the Gulf states, whose oil wealth has fuelled an enormous boom in construction, the number of immigrant workers is now more that double that of the local population.

Yet worldwide the conditions in which migrants live and work are under attack, and The Immigrant War catalogues a series of such attacks, very different in character, by both governments and employers. Migrants are far more vulnerable to exploitative conditions than national workers because they lack the legal protection of either their country of origin or their country of destination, and, overwhelmingly, they are non-unionised. It is not in the interest of those who do well out of the system – such as the fruit companies in California that depend on the low wages that they can pay to illegal immigrants from Mexico – to do anything about the often brutal exploitation of migrant workers. In fact, as Longhi points out, companies that treat migrant workers ethically and pay the legal minimum wage are often unable to compete with companies that show no compunction in exploiting illegal labour.

Longhi criticises the efforts of national governments to militarise their borders against flows of migrants. The US border fence with Mexico is a notorious example of the attempt to prevent the flow of labour from Latin America by military means. However, the problem is widespread. In contravention of international asylum laws, since 2009 Italy has adopted a policy of intercepting and ‘pushing back’ migrants – many of whom are legitimate asylum seekers – crossing the Mediterranean from Africa in boats. Most are pushed to Libya, where they are held in detention centres with no right to apply for asylum because, unlike Italy, Libya is not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the right of asylum. The policy is still in force, despite international condemnation from bodies including the European Court of Human Rights.

Such measures are nevertheless counterproductive, Longhi argues. Attempts to restrict immigration by military means, and by imposing policies that severely limit the possibilities of legal migration, do not prevent the flow of immigration. Rather, they remove legal protections for migrants and drive them into the hands of employers who can use unregistered labourers to circumvent national employment laws. They fuel black markets, and cause crime, trafficking and exploitation to flourish. Longhi argues that if there is to be a solution to the many problems that are documented in the book, it cannot be found in the policy of national governments to restrict immigration. Policy solutions must be international.

The Immigrant War avoids simple clichés. Against the false idea that migrant labour is to blame for the declining working conditions of national labour forces, Longhi argues that it is not immigrants, but their exploitation that causes the working conditions of national labour forces to decline. Illegal migrants who have no contractual power must accept any conditions they are offered, and companies are able to use this cheap labour to drive down conditions and wages for the whole labour force. This is an important argument, because it shows that the conditions of national and migrant workers are bound together. Longhi argues that the solution to declining working conditions and wages is therefore not to be sought in restricting further immigration and reducing the rights of migrants already in the country, but in defending their rights through trade union activism and law, and fighting for standardised wages, conditions and protections for all workers.

There are many horrifying cases described in The Immigrant War. One example is of the Sri Lankan domestic worker who escaped Saudi Arabia and was found to have had 24 nails hammered into her body by the master of house, who has not been prosecuted. Despite stories such as this, it is not a pessimistic book. Its subtitle is ‘the global movement against discrimination and exploitation’, and Longhi looks at the many international efforts that aim to change the system and improve the conditions of immigrants. These include transnational trade union organisations, and movements such as ‘24h sans nous’ in France and ‘A Day Without Us’ in Italy, which have organised walk-outs and demonstrations to highlight the extent to which those countries rely on migrant labour. Technological changes and ‘digital communities’ enable international co-ordinated networks of migrants to emerge. Such movements are in a formative stage, but they form a base on which unifying labour movements can be built.

The Immigrant War is a well-researched overview of a system that is international in nature but local in character. It sets out both to define the problems and to search for a solution. This is a difficult task for a short book, and the solutions that Longhi points to are, by nature, sketchy. It calls for a transnational resistance of migrants, coupled with co-ordinated employment policies across national borders. Elements of a legal framework already exist and merely require enforcement, but the means by which migrant labour can be co-ordinated is less clear. Nevertheless, the book’s optimistic tone is refreshing, and the breadth of research and the comparative approach makes it a valuable document. Longhi makes a convincing case that the labour conditions of all workers cannot be improved without understanding and addressing the problems faced by migrant workers. The Immigrant War adds greatly to our understanding of those problems.