The government recently published a list of 360 companies that underpaid their staff. But workers need more than the ‘naming and shaming’ of employers, when low pay is institutionalised and the government is quick to blame poor working conditions first and foremost on immigrants. Addressing the Conservative Party Conference after she became prime minister, Theresa May claimed to be on the side of people who ‘find themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration’. If the left focused its efforts on uniting and organising low-paid workers regardless of where they were born, it could begin both to quell anti-migrant sentiment and to fight back against low pay and poor working conditions.
The accusation that migration brings down wages has been repeatedly debunked. Petros Elia, the general secretary of the United Voices of the World, calls it a ‘non-debate always based on prejudice’. The UVW is a trade union for some of the most unrepresented groups in the country. Its members are predominantly migrants. Most are in the low-wage private sector, working in hospitality, retail and restaurants, or as security guards, cleaners and carers, where union membership is low.
Some of UVW’s successes include the living wage for cleaners at the Barbican Centre and Withers law firm, a wage increase at Topshop and better pay and rights at Sotheby’s – all brought about, Elia says, by migrant-led strikes. They are currently campaigning for maternity and sick pay for outsourced cleaning staff at the LSE.
When politicians and commentators on the left repeat the myth that migrants drive down wages, or say that they make people ‘anxious about culture, identity and the rate of change of communities’, they obscure the solidarity that could be formed between exploited British-born and migrant workers. Baseless anti-migrant arguments from the left let the exploitative economic system – and all the people who profit from it – off the hook, and give credence to the xenophobic right-wing narrative that migration is a problem.
I work and study at SOAS. The outsourced cleaning staff, most of whom are migrants and members of Unison, have won many victories but after years of struggle are still campaigning to be brought in-house. They recently teamed up with temporary, part-time teaching staff – many of us, too, are migrants – to campaign for better pay and conditions. This cut through artificial national, racial and educational divides, exploited and deepened by politicians like May and Nigel Farage, to demand that all low-paid staff, no matter where they were born or what work they do, are rewarded properly.
As research by Bridget Anderson has shown, immigration controls often exacerbate precarious work. The way to fight back against government policy and achieve better pay and conditions isn’t to stop migration but to organise. ‘When you see workers earning the living wage they have either fought for that themselves or done so through a union,’ Elia says. ‘And if they themselves didn’t do it there was a previous group of workers who fought that fight for them. Most employers don’t decide to pay their staff more, they’re forced to.’