Monday, 4 July 2011

A class perspective on immigration and jobs

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has urged businesses to "give a chance" to British workers and "not just fall back on labour from abroad." This has, naturally, made the tabloids hot under the collar. But whilst they scramble to whip up hysteria over immigration, the rest of us shouldn't forget - and continue to point out - that the real issue here is one of class.

There are two sides to the mainstream immigration debate.

On the one hand, the right argues that immigration is the root cause of unemployment (and many other) issues and the solution is "British jobs for British workers." This is exemplified today by the Sun, who use the headline "Jobs for the Vlads" to argue that "foreign workers have more than half the jobs in five parts of London" and as such "Britain must tackle immigration to curb unemployment."

Conversely, liberals take a view that is in favour of immigration - but from an unsubtly pro-business point of view. Hence the Guardian stating that "business leaders said it often made sense to take on well-educated and hard-working foreigners" and employers hired migrants "because often they were better workers" than Britons. David Frost of the British Chambers of Commerce is quoted as doubting that British job applicants "are able to read, write and communicate, and have a good work ethic" when compared to immigrants.

In both arguments, there is no challenge to the presumption that "British workers" and "migrants" should be at odds with one another. The only difference is that, for the conservative, Britons ought to be favoured whilst, for the liberal, migrants are chosen because they are better than "lazy" Britons or take jobs "that we won't do."

Both attitudes can, in different ways, be held accountable for the kind of alienation amongst the working class that breeds racist sentiments and/or support for the far-right.

The right-wing argument, obviously, backs up the kind of fear-mongering and scapegoating that the likes of the BNP engage in. Though the likes of the Sun and Daily Mail have frequently denounced the BNP, they have done so whilst providing a string of stories and editorials supporting the main arguments they make. Hence the phenomenon whereby a significant proportion of the population supports BNP policies - until they're told they come from the BNP.

The liberal perspective, meanwhile, plays into the viewpoint that "liberal elitists ... sneer at the supposed idleness, vulgarity, xenophobia and ignorance of so-called "chavs" or "white trash." It feeds a sense of victimhood that pushes people further into the hands of the far-right. But whilst those same elitists dismiss such a feeling, as with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's "spare me the tears over the white working class," there is some justification to it. Owen Jones's recent book, Chavs, is one of the very few times this has been addressed from a genuine class perspective, and so it is easy to see why this falls into the remit of the fascists and the false binary - the liberals are attacking you, but the nationalists will speak up for you - prevails.

So, what's the reality? Well, the Sun tells us that the biggest proportion of foreign workers can be found in Newham, Brent, and Harrow. However, this becomes less of an outrage when you consider that Newham, where 64.8% of those in work are "foreign," only 32.6% of the population is white British. In Brent, where 62.5% of those in work are foreign, 29.2% of residents are white British. In Harrow, a 56.1% foreign workforce is drawn from a population where only 29% are white British (PDF).

Now, the comparison is far from perfect, but then - as ever - "foreign" is an ill-defined term. What we can see is that there is no suggestion that British working class people are under-represented within the workforce and that, as you might expect, populations with more "foreigners" had more "foreign" workers.

This is not to say that there's not a problem in terms of employment. There clearly is. But we know what that problem is - an economy in which there are an average of five people to every job (more in deprived areas), set only to get worse as the government slashes at least a quarter a million public sector jobs and the private sector takes an equivalent hit as a knock-on effect. All whilst those who do work are struggling to survive as wages don't match inflation, but the profits of the bosses continue to grow.

Then, as the Solidarity Federation points out in the latest Catalyst, even when there is increasing employment it doesn't provide too rosy a picture;
ACCORDING TO the headlines, UK unemployment fell 88,000 in the three months to April this year to 2.43 million, the biggest drop since the summer of 2000. This was heralded as proof that the government’s policies are working, and that the private sector is creating more jobs than the 143,000 public sector positions slashed during the same period. But dig a little deeper and the spin unravels.

The Office for National Statistics is open that the fall “was mainly due to an increase of 80,000 in the number of students not active in the labour market.” This seems to have been due to them simply being reclassified, rather than them all suddenly finding jobs. So that leaves just 8,000 jobs ‘created’.

Here too the picture is not so rosy. The number of people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) increased to 1.49 million. This was partly due to people being forced off other benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), by the use of a computer program to reclassify seriously ill people – including those with suicidal depression and lost limbs – as ‘fit for work’.

Meanwhile, the number of people working part-time because they could not find a full-time job increased to 1.21 million, the highest figure since records began in 1992. Here the reality becomes clear. Seriously ill and disabled people are being forced to sign on to JSA and look for work, while those on JSA are forced onto workfare programmes to work for their dole money – for less than £1.70 an hour – or to take part-time jobs they can’t afford to live on.

These casual, low-paid jobs, including the rise of ‘zero hours’ contracts where someone is technically employed but with no guaranteed hours, have grown to record levels, whilst hundreds of thousands of relatively stable public sector jobs are being axed. Behind the headlines of falling unemployment is rising insecurity for all of us, whether in work or not.
Migrants are at the sharp end of this, often suffering the most dangerous, least secure, and lowest paid jobs (PDF). The saying that they are undercutting the wages of natives is true - but only to the extent that they are victims of this practice just as much as those having their wages undercut. The real enemies, playing different groups of workers off against one another for profit, are of course the bosses.

The answer to these conundrums isn't to increase immigration controls, or to "put British workers first." These policies are muted precisely because they force workers to compete and by subjecting migrants to harsher immigration controls the state makes it easier for capital to exploit them because they are placed in a much more vulnerable position. Likewise, the answer isn't to defend the status quo and attack "lazy" British workers, because the ultimate outcome of such a world-view is the justification of abhorrent practices like workfare.

Instead, the answer is that our outlook must always be based on class. No matter where we come from or the colour of our skin, all workers are exploited to boost the profits of the bosses. Yet precisely because our labour keeps the world turning, we hold enormous power. Instead of fighting one another for the scraps, we need to organise and fight the class enemy who is attacking us all.