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MP Frank Field has called for a debate on immigration. Jack Dromey, Deputy General Secretary of the T&GWU, has called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Here's a contribution to that debate from a working class and trade union perspective...

Let's have a working class debate on immigration


The government forecast that there would be 15,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe in the year after their entry to the European Union on 1 January 2004. The actual number was 300,000, followed by another 300,000 in 2005. Due to the increased supply of labour, wages in several unskilled and low-skilled job sectors have fallen, hitting the indigenous working class. The extra demand for housing has forced prices and rents ever higher, and in many cities students now find it almost impossible to get part-time jobs to help them through college.

Consequently, three-quarters of the population now wants far stricter limits on immigrant numbers, according to an Ipsos MORI poll carried out on behalf of the Sunday Times between 11 and 13 August: 63 per cent say immigration laws should be "much tougher", up from 58 per cent 18 months ago, while a further 11 per cent say there should be no more immigration. 77 per cent think the government should set a strict limit on the number of immigrants allowed into Britain each year. Just 14 per cent of people strongly agree that immigration is "generally good" for Britain, with double that number taking the opposite view.

Incidentally, the same poll also revealed widespread impatience with Tony Blair, with almost half of the nearly 1,000 people questioned believing that he should resign immediately.

This popular pressure against unlimited and uncontrolled immigration may force the government to impose limits on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria when the two countries join the EU in 1 January. The government predicts that 350,000 Romanians will come to Britain next year. Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, told the BBC that migration would be "properly controlled". Home Secretary John Reid said, "I don't believe in the free movement of labour: I believe the situation should be managed. You hear the same from ethnic minorities. There's nothing racist about it." But the Home Office insists that no final decision has been made and the Foreign Office is lobbying hard for no limits to be introduced.

Whose decision is it?
The point is, who decides? In a democracy, the majority should decide, even if some think they are wrong. What does it say about Britain, if the government imposes its view, against the clearly expressed wishes of the majority of the British people?

Immigration is and always has been a mechanism for depressing wages and undermining working class organisation. That is why the government and the CBI have declared that immigration is a good thing. To its shame, the TUC has endorsed their sentiments despite unemployment approaching 2 million and the decline in average earnings, including bonuses (National Office of Statistics June 2006).

And removing skilled labour from other economies does nothing for the development of those nations denuded of those skills; nor does it assist in the development of an organised working class in those countries. In the past 12 months both the South African Health Minister and the Pakistani ambassador to Britain have put in pleas to Britain to stop seizing their nurses and computer programmers respectively. Their polite requests have been ignored.

The West Indian immigrants who came here in the fifties and sixties were invited to take the low-paid jobs that British workers could not afford to take. This helped to maintain the low wages of those jobs, although to the credit of the unions, these workers did become organised. The immigrants from the Indian subcontinent who came to fill jobs in the textile industry were by and large confined to the lower-paid jobs. Sometimes unions such as the Knitwear and Hosiery Workers Union, as it was then, would insist that highly skilled knitting jobs be ring-fenced for British workers in order to maintain wage rates while lower-paid, less skilled jobs would be reserved for immigrants who would be outside the union. This is history – workers' defence of their skills and livelihood in a bad situation.

There has always been a relationship between immigration and wage rates. Today, that relationship is no different but much more critical. Our borders are open, immigration is on a gigantic scale and we face an influx of cheap Romanian and Bulgarian labour from January 2007.

Better life?
Of course migrants aspire to a better life, but they should fight for it in their own country – or how will it ever make progress. Poland's economy, for example, is being hamstrung by a shortage of workers. Even drafting in convicts to do essential work is not plugging the gap. And the situation in some African countries is even more dire.

Young men who abandon their country make things worse, not better. And we in Britain need to fight for progress here.

Further, British working people should not be cast as racists or against people from other nations. The question of training our own people is fundamental.

Employers moan at the lack of skills – quite understandably – but seek the cheap way forward. The same is occurring in the public sector. For example, local government will sponsor overseas workers to gain British recognised qualifications – running courses in London for Australian, New Zealand and South African teachers to boost their qualifications to British standards while completely failing to produce courses that could raise Londoners with qualifications just short of the required level.

People who squeak that racism is the core of the opposition to an unfettered movement of labour need to look at some of the consequences. White teachers from Commonwealth countries get preference over mature Londoners (black and white) who would otherwise be fast-tracked into teaching. Some of the inner London boroughs have unemployment levels (mainly black people) of over 8 per cent, yet jobs are going to EU migrants (mainly white). What can be more racist in our context than denying someone indigenous work by importing overseas labour?

Here are a few ideas to throw into the debate about what should be done:

  1. Restrict the free movement of labour to Britain from Romania and Bulgaria if these countries join the EU on 1 January. Better still, don't let them join.

  2. Control the export of capital. Because of the deliberately engineered skills shortage – abolition of apprenticeship, etc – manufacturing employers are threatening to move production abroad to Eastern Europe or China if their workforce refuses to accept Polish, Lithuanian or other East European skilled workers whom they want to employ on the National Minimum Wage instead of the skilled rate. How might we deal with this?

    Well, one way would be to put in place controls on the export of capital to prevent them carrying out their threat. We could then insist that all immigrant workers require work permits, which would only be issued if the employers agreed to take on and train local workers to replace immigrant labour when they qualified or became indentured, and on condition that the employer paid the rate for the job. Government funds could assist this training. The immigrant labour would then be required to leave the country when this process was complete.

  3. Prove no one can be recruited here. In the case of unskilled immigrant labour, perhaps the work permits would only be issued after the employer could prove that it had exhausted all means of local recruitment including substantially increasing pay. The employer would be required to pay the immigrant labour the highest rate of pay on which it had failed to recruit local labour.

    The immigrant labour contracts would be limited to a defined duration when the employer would be forced to try and recruit local labour again. If the employer is contracted to a public service, the contract would be terminated if the employer failed to recruit local non-immigrant labour on the second attempt. Immigrant labour would be required to leave the country at the end of any work permit unless it was proven that it was impossible to recruit local labour on established rates of pay, in which case they could stay as British citizens and British workers.

  4. Secure our borders. The concept of an amnesty for illegal immigrants is foolish if we don't have control over our own borders, as it would simply be followed by another wave of immigration. The first step must be to secure and control our borders. Every sovereign country has the right to know and control who comes in and who goes out of the country. Then maybe we should tackle the problem for what it is – 21st century slavery.

    If a ship repair yard employer on Tyneside brings in a Polish workforce on the National Minimum Wage rather than the rate for the job, houses them in cabins inside the yard, and rotates them every ten weeks for a new workforce to prevent unionisation, that's slavery. People smugglers, gangsters and gang masters, and the new breed of employment agencies are the new slave traders, and illegal immigrants working in sweatshop conditions are the new slaves.

    Let's outlaw new slavery in all its forms with punitive sentences appropriate to slavery. Any employer paying below the National Minimum Wage should be treated similarly. After this, we could put the illegal immigrants to the same test as skilled or unskilled immigrants referred to above. Those who choose not to work, or are involved in the black market or crime to survive, will have to leave the country.

Basic ideas to protect Britain
These are very basic ideas designed to protect British manufacturing, British workers and wage rates. To secure our borders we should bring British troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan to help create a border, security and customs force along with existing agencies and maybe a strong unit to enforce anti-slavery and immigration laws. That surely should be within the power of a sovereign state.

Unfortunately, all of this would be incompatible with EU laws and policy. In fact, the expanded EU was solely about free movement of labour and capital to help capitalism survive. This means that the British parliament has no real control over issues such as immigration and so the first step to controlling it would have to be withdrawal from the European Union.

The notion, shared by those on the ultra left through to the leadership of the TUC, that everyone in the world has a right to come here to work must be quashed: it is anti working class. If we decide to do these necessary things, we decide to take charge of the state ourselves as a class.