There has been a growing climate of xenophobia towards migrant workers in the UK in recent years. Unfortunately, parts of the labour movement have been complicit in it.
The UK Labour Party leadership has been receiving a lot of criticism for its handling of Brexit. In its defence, a significant number of people in constituencies in its traditional heartlands of Wales, the midlands and the north voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Less defensible is Labour’s failure to support EU migrants in the UK. The prime minister, Theresa May, has introduced an incredibly bureaucratic and arbitrary ‘settlement scheme’, which, in practice, creates different categories of guest workers, yet opposition criticism has been muted and circumspect.
Labour’s apparent abandonment of EU freedom of movement has not been driven by the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, however disappointing his response. Arguably, it represents a trend which has enveloped all aspects of the UK labour movement in the last 20 years.
There are now around 3.7 million EU-born migrants living in the UK. Around half are from the countries, in eastern and central Europe, which acceded in or after 2004.
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Generally, EU migrants have a higher employment rate than people born in the UK. One in every four works in the retail, wholesale and hospitality industries, with additionally large numbers in cleaning and housekeeping (especially in health and social care). Most are in lower-waged and deunionised jobs, which are likely to feature casualised conditions. For many, this will only make any settlement criteria harder to verify. The vast majority however contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, with a 2016-17 net gain to the Treasury of £4.7 billion—many EU migrants are relatively young and tend not to have family responsibilities.
In advance of EU enlargement in 2004, the UK government chronically underestimated the anticipated migrant workforce. And there is some evidence inward migration depressed wages at the lower end of the labour market before the financial crash hit the UK in 2008. But low-waged, increasingly casualised employment had already become embedded in many areas. This stems from much earlier—the abolition of the wages councils under the government of Margaret Thatcher, part of its war against organised labour, and the increasing use of no-guarantee contracts and agency employment. The establishment of a national minimum wage in the late 1990s under ‘new’ Labour was a halting, grudging move, with the minimum pitched just low enough to suppress complaints from employers.
With rising costs of living, people on lower wages in the UK weren’t doing well enough to feel secure. In addition, Labour began to introduce benefit sanctions to pressurise welfare claimants. The very idea of social security had been successfully challenged and the idea of ‘benefit scroungers’ had become dominant in the party which had historically represented organised labour. A casualised labour market will, by its nature, force workers to claim benefits repeatedly—even for short periods. The working class in the UK was, by the time of the crash, already being made to feel more insecure, with or without migration. This was, and still is, reflected in huge household debt.
There was no moratorium on inward migration, as there was in Germany. As the credit crunch became a recession, Labour began its confused tailspin. Attempting to assuage what was deemed to be a protectionist mood, the prime minister, Gordon Brown, promised ‘British jobs for British workers’. But the deeply-embedded, Thatcherite logic of the UK labour market was to defy him. Employers were increasingly able to skip UK recruitment entirely and bring in agency staff en bloc. In 2009, demonstrations emerged in protest against the use of foreign labour.
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Brown was a significantly more receptive figure to trade-union concerns than his predecessor, Tony Blair. A protracted set of negotiations led in 2010, the dying days of the Labour government, to some modifications to casual labour markets, including more recognition of the rights of agency staff and some light regulation of employment agencies.
But then came the coalition government—a mix of economic neoliberalism and social liberalism, under the Conservative leadership of David Cameron with the Liberal Democrats in tow. Austerity meant a long pay freeze for everyone working in front-line public services, thousands of redundancies across local authorities and increasingly fierce benefit sanctions, a choking grip on anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in need. There was a big fall in real wages and the pressure on the lower end of the labour market intensified.
The mass media charged up increasingly vicious campaigns against the very people most affected by austerity: those on disability benefits and income support. But mostly the press focused on migrants. Labour, in opposition, became divided between those who defended Brown-era spending and those who thought it ‘over-generous’, between those who saw immigration as important for one reason or another and those who perceived it as a threat to purported cultural homogeneity.
By 2015, the idea of Labour imposing controls on immigration had become a slogan on a mug in party merchandise. The assumption that migrant workers were a bad thing had become absorbed as a central tenet across the political spectrum, with the possible exception of the nationalists in Scotland. ‘Blue’ Labour’s influence was reflected in a renewed focus on people and place—family, flag and faith—which added an overt nativism to Labour’s political palette. The 2015 party manifesto, product of an earnest leadership trying to unite a disjointed political force, also promised additional regulations on casualisation and agency work which would have addressed some of the major questions at the lower end of the labour market, such as the prevalence of zero-hours contracts. But these promises received less attention.
Labour had, perhaps unwittingly, ceded space to the demonisation of foreigners and foreign institutions by the British press. After the shock Conservative victory in 2015, Cameron began negotiations with the EU in advance of his promised ‘Brexit’ referendum and the Eton-educated prime minister made migrants his main target. His negotiation stance reads like a charge sheet against the migrant workers who had settled in the UK. He demanded an ‘emergency brake’ on EU citizens receiving welfare benefits and easier deportation of EU nationals deemed likely to represent a threat—implying migrants were predisposed to ‘welfare tourism’ and/or ‘terrorism’.
Labour failed to challenge the unfairness of this—that any reduction of in-work benefits to EU citizens would create two classes of worker—and Cameron went on to lead a referendum campaign built almost entirely on channelling anti-migrant sentiment whilc claiming the economic efficiency of EU membership. From this perspective, the Remain campaign was always anti-immigration and anti-freedom of movement. But the Tories were increasingly caught between wanting to satiate capital with cheap labour and exploiting the increasingly xenophobic political climate. The drive towards stripping migrant workers of full citizenship, and assigning them guest-worker status, can really be said to have started in 2016. Again, the Labour Party, now led byCorbyn—a politician with a rare history of standing up to bigotry and helping migrants—had little to say.
The referendum result was almost universally interpreted as the end of freedom of movement, despite this not being mentioned on the ballot. After Cameron resigned, he was succeeded by May, who as home secretary had sought to curb immigration. The end of freedom of movement was also, arguably, tacitly accepted within Labour’s six conditions to support a Brexit deal, which included ‘fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and of communities’. There was no commitment to protect migrant workers from losing their status as full citizens in the country where they were working.
Some trade unions, including Unite, have adopted a pro-Brexit line. Official efforts to incorporate migrant workers into formal or informal union structures have been sporadic and unco-ordinated. Migrant workers are almost entirely unrepresented in the media and the public sphere. Corbyn and union leaders are quick to point to exploitation of low-paid migrants—and there are cases of this. But this instrumentalises migrants, denying them agency. And if there are instances of exploitation, this reflects on the UK labour-market regime, rather than on migration or migrants.
May’s proposals for EU migrant workers are viciously discriminatory: they strip current migrants of their unqualified right to stay and clamp down on reuniting families, while reducing new arrivals to nothing more than guest workers on temporary work visas. Her settlement scheme is a bureaucratic nightmare, reflecting her lack of administrative competence. It imposes arbitrary time conditions, which will lead to huge difficulties in producing the required evidence for mobile and casual workers. The financial criteria to be applied to future migrant workers are also set to devastate the health service and social care.
Some sections of organised labour have partially succumbed to the xenophobia which has begun to shroud social attitudes in the UK. Some of the Brexit-supporting unions, and MPs on the right of the Labour Party, are offering perspectives which are very unsympathetic to migrant workers. At this late stage, it’s up to the internationalist left, and labour leaders with some alternative vision, to take the lead.
The UK has a long history of eventually bringing people into the labour movement. In the 19th century, Irish workers faced rampant discrimination but eventually were to assume crucial leadership roles. Real political vision is required, to stop the UK labour movement being complicit in a botched, low-grade imitation of Singapore’s ruthless treatment of guest workers as second-class human beings.
Maybe, however, Labour’s inability to handle the question of EU migrant workers reflects a diminished capacity in British society to pursue social goals in general. After all, the failure to fight for migrants follows directly from a failure to fight for low-paid British workers in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s tempting to think of this as indicative of a wider malaise—the declining agency of organised labour, of politics itself, in a state sinking into post-imperial gloom and inertia.