IT IS A MEASURE OF THE OBSESSION WITH MIGRATION in the popular press and among Tory Party circles that the only significant concession Cameron brought back from his negotiations with the EU tops was a deal to cut tax credits and child benefit for low paid migrant workers in Britain. It is obscene that this was trumpeted as “a gain for Britain”.
The In campaigners correctly argue that if Britain is to accept a position like that of Switzerland or Norway, it would have to accept free movement as a corollary. Though not in the EU, these countries can’t control migration. Hypothetically, and without a shred of evidence for their case, the Outs claim that Britain could gain control of its borders and slash migration from the EU. Would that benefit British workers?
To state the obvious, migrants come here to earn a living and they do useful work – in many cases work that would not be done otherwise. We would lose the benefits of their useful labour. To take one example, strawberries are now available in the shops for much longer. They are picked by migrant workers who return to Eastern Europe at the end of the season. Care work is another industry heavily populated with migrant labour. Migrants often perform low paid, dirty work that British workers would be reluctant to perform.
Migration can be seen as a threat to workers’ livelihoods. It is the case that, both under UK and EU law, employers can hire workers from low wage economies such as Poland and directly replace their British-born workers with migrants on low pay. So it’s the boss who brings them in who is really our enemy. The law should be changed by a Labour government to protect workers, but the threat to jobs is the same in or out of the EU. The other way to defend work conditions is to insist that migrant labour should only be recruited on the same agreed rates of pay as workers in existing industry agreements, and organised in local trade unions. This was the battle fought by construction workers at Lindsey oil refinery in 2009.
The effect of migrant labour is usually not so blatant as to undercut existing wages and directly replace the existing workforce. The migration of workers accustomed to lower pay can tend to reduce the overall wage level in a region or industry over time. It is a weapon used by the boss class for precisely that reason. The only answer is to fight back through trade unions and through legislation for a living wage.
Mass migration can also tend to put pressure on social services, particularly in working class areas. The problem is that every penny spent on schools and social services under capitalism is a penny grudged. The answer is to fight the cuts and vote in a Corbyn Labour government that opposes austerity.