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Workers of the world, unite!

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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.’

Comments on “Workers of the world, unite!”

  1. Stu Bry says:

    It is disappointing that the link which debunks the relationship between supply of labour and wages is behind a Financial Times paywall.

    Wages cannot be drive down past the legal minimum so surely the correct argument isn’t whether or not “migration brings down wages” but whether migration prevents wage rises.

    Real wages have fell 10% in the last decade. Have millions of A10 workers entering the UK work force really not had any effect on wage stagnation?

    Another issue is that the Eastern European work force allows employers to offer conditions that are only tenable for workers who can at some point return to a country where the cost of living is significantly lower.

    • wearytruth says:

      It’s not a narrow technical econometric issue, fellow. If workers are encouraged to assume the answer to their problems is to kick the other guy out, they will become more and more racist and supporters of rightwing parties which will steadily grind down labour conditions. It is important to have reasonable immigration limits, but the most important thing of all is helpng people to see that the enemy is the bloated capitalist class, not a few immigrants.

    • wearytruth says:

      So you are falling for divide and rule, eh? The fa guys at the table drop you a few shitty crumbs and you battle to stop the guy from Poland getting to it.

    • Michael Taylor says:

      “Real wages have fallen 10% in the last decade” …. “effect on wage stagnation”. Well, which is it, a 10% fall, or stagnation? In fact, average real wages rose between Q1 2004 and Q4 2007, despite A10 immigration. They then flatlined, to start a long decline from Q2 2009. No prize for spotting why that was (clue: 2009). Since Q2 2014, they have risen again. The index (to base 2000) is now (Q4 2016) higher (113.4) than in Q1 2004 (109.5), a real rise of 3.56%. Source ONS:
      https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/datasets/averageweeklyearnings

  2. Stu Bry says:

    Having looked into the study the method used is to compare wages in different regions of the UK and adjust by sector according to the level of immigration in the region.

    Putting aside the validity of the methodology it strikes me as being completely disingenuous. The question at hand is the status quo versus a hypothetical economy without the A10 ascension and subsequent mass migration.

  3. Michael Taylor says:

    If you want to know what the fallacy is about immigrants driving down wages, it’s the ‘lump’ theory of labour: that there is a fixed amount of work to be divided between a pool of workers. In fact, the total of work to be done is not fixed; for one thing, immigrants will introduce extra demand into the economy of their own.
    It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course. Just take the agricultural labour market, where labour is scarce and would be a lot scarcer without migrants, but it doesn’t end there, because the supermarkets are price-setters and force down costs.

  4. epigone says:

    Papers from neoclassical economists, think tanks, or pro-EU sources always deny the link between free movement of labour and “social dumping.” This is not surprising, since neoclassical economists are ideologically driven to deny even the very existence of the reserve army of labour, painting the concept as a debunked Marxist fantasy. Marxist economists writing on this subject often find contradicting evidence. But even most people who call themselves Marxists nowadays rarely touch the concept of the reserve army of labour, for reasons I hint at below. Rare is the mention of the reserve army or the history of EU rulings against trade unions such as in the Laval and Viking cases, which point to the exploitative nature of the principle of free movement of labour.

    To a certain extent, this dogged commitment to freedom of movement from the neoliberal order is commendable as it retains a certain emancipatory spirit from liberalism, nonetheless it should be a red flag for leftists who claim to see through neoliberalism—this train of thought rarely happens, or is allowed, among the mainstream left, however. It is fine to denounce deregulation, privatisation and so on, but when it comes to the “free movement of labour” which is a founding principle of neoliberalism since Friedman in the 1950s, the “discourse” gets spikier. Criticism of this principle is usually identified as a cowardly attack on the immigrant workforce itself, an expression of personal xenophobia, or indeed racism. And even when there is consensus that the “free movement of labour” advocated by capitalists might have more ambiguous or profit-driven motives, it is said that freedom of movement is non-negotiable, a moral imperative regardless of the underlying economics. Or often there are empty platitudes about how we should “all fight together,” kumbaya-style. This is fine, but one suspects it’s more of a deflection from an uncomfortable discussion than anything else.

    When such articles are published in the FT or the Guardian to reassure their liberal readership about how opposition to freedom of movement is irrational and probably fruit of racist beliefs rather than economic concerns about exploitation, the online left also indulges in the activity. A certain undercurrent of doubt or unease is always present in these tense debates. The truth is that the historical relationship between leftism, trade unionism, and immigration was often oppositional or even violent. Some of the tension between these ideas and misunderstandings is detailed here by a Marxist economist: https://paulcockshott.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/brexit-imigration-and-exploitation/

    • wearytruth says:

      It’s not a narrow technical econometric issue. If workers are encouraged to assume the answer to their problems is to kick the other guy out, they will become more and more racist and supporters of rightwing parties which will steadily grind down labour conditions. It is important to have reasonable immigration limits, but the most important thing of all is helping people to see that the enemy is the bloated capitalist class, not a few immigrants.

    • Stu Bry says:

      Thanks for that comment.

      It is much more enlightening than the actual blog.

      • wearytruth says:

        Stu Bry;

        Do you mean my comment or Epigone’s?

        • Stu Bry says:

          Obviously Epigone’s.

          Although you have performed the handy task of proving this part of Epigone’s comment correct.

          “Or often there are empty platitudes about how we should “all fight together,” kumbaya-style. This is fine, but one suspects it’s more of a deflection from an uncomfortable discussion than anything else.”

          • manchegauche says:

            I’d take Epigone vaguely seriously if he hadn’t started his little rant (essentially) with ‘Experts who study this issue can’t find a link between lower wages and immigration – they’re wrong because it’s obviopus isn’t it?”

            And as for disparaging the idea of collective struggle, I can’t see where he’s going defending strict immigration controls from a Marxist perspective.

            Workers travel all over the world – human beings migrate…get over it. Ironically, we’d all still be in Africa (happier probably) if we hadn’t, as a species, got curious or desperate enough to move and look for another world.

            • Stu Bry says:

              ‘Experts who study this issue can’t find a link between lower wages and immigration”

              It seems as if there has been no genuine effort to study the relationship between immigration and wages. The Bank of England study which is often referenced does nothing of the kind.

              The reason for denial of the relationship between immigration and unskilled wages is that to acknowledge it would leave liberal commentators only two positions (1) Low paid voters are correct to oppose FOM or (2) Low paid voters should put the right of foreign individuals ahead of their own (already precarious) economic circumstances.

              We live in a society where competition is present in almost every facet of life including employment, education, housing and social care. Middle class protectionism is rampant but barely commented on whether it’s via professional bodies in the law and accounting, the farcical limiting of medical school places, third sector funding or dubious charitable tax reliefs. There are countless other examples the most offensive of which is the different levels of taxation on labour, ‘self employment’, capital gains and inheritance. Middle class protectionism is fine but when working class people attempt to protect their own interests it is intolerable.

              • wearytruth says:

                Kumbaya? Without idealism and pull-together how have any decent societies been built?

                And why if your philosophy is right should the middle class not deny the working class the protectionism it supposedly enjoys? Not fair? Well, fairness is also “kumbaya” – an ideal.

    • Ouessante says:

      Thankyou epigone. The neoliberal basis for FMOL was vaguely there in my head but was something I hadn’t thought through fully.

  5. FoolCount says:

    That is quite curious to see such a title on a piece advocating for unrestricted importation of cheap foreign labour – the tool so adroitly used by capitalists to actually divide the workers. The constituency advocating for labour importation leaves no doubts of its actual (and intended) effects – if bringing in foreign workers did not depress the wages why would the employers be so loud in its support? Just hire the locals at the same rate and get on with it. The whole argument is just silly and makes no economic sense whatsoever – labour is a commodity and a level of supply cannot not affect its price. What type of mental acrobatics do the so-called “economists” have to resort to in order to prove otherwise is but an illustration of how essential this issue is in the ongoing class struggle.

    • wearytruth says:

      I think I explained that above

      “It’s not a narrow technical econometric issue. If workers are encouraged to assume the answer to their problems is to kick the other guy out, they will become more and more racist and supporters of rightwing parties which will steadily grind down labour conditions. It is important to have reasonable immigration limits, but the most important thing of all is helping people to see that the enemy is the bloated capitalist class, not a few immigrants.”

    • wearytruth says:

      How come you oppose capitalists ONLY on the immigrant issue. How come you are happy enough with the shitty system otherwise? Why take it out on the poorest instead of the richest?

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