False Dichotomies

Rebekah Diski

In the early hours of 1 March, Home Office Immigration Enforcement officers descended on a quiet Southampton road to arrest six people as part of Operation Brycem, an investigation into undocumented migrants working in the care sector. The brief announcement on the government website said the operation ‘shows that we will stop at nothing to protect the vulnerable’ – meaning those receiving social care rather than the undocumented workers, who were variously detained, deported or released on immigration bail.

Four of the six were thought to be working in social care, a sector suffering from the interlocking crises of austerity, privatisation and an ageing population. An estimated 2.6 million people over the age of fifty have unmet care needs; the sector has more than 165,000 vacancies; and care jobs – disproportionately filled by women and migrant workers – are some of the worst paid and most precarious in the country. But instead of investing in the service for the benefit of caregivers as well as those they look after, the government is once again scapegoating migrants.

To distract us from the government’s deliberate despoliation of our social infrastructure, we are told – in increasingly dehumanising language – that migrants ‘drain’ public services or, as in the case of Operation Brycem, that they threaten the vulnerable (for whom they happen to be caring). The strategy relies on the constant reinforcement of difference between ‘migrants’ and ‘ordinary working people’, as if there were no overlap between these groups.

The immigration health surcharge, introduced in 2014 as part of the deliberate policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ for people coming to the UK, is already a double tax on migrant workers. The surcharge co-opts NHS staff, one in six of whom are themselves not British nationals, into the border regime by linking healthcare to immigration status. They have now been told their pay rises will be funded by a 66 per cent increase in the surcharge, to £1035 for adults and £776 for under-18s and students. Unions and migrant organisations have condemned the move as a ‘blatant attempt to sow division within the labour movement and our communities’.

Visa and other immigration fees, already among the highest in Europe, are set to rise by up to 20 per cent. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says the increases ‘will price workers out of affording a visa and force thousands further into poverty during the cost of living crisis, or out of the country’, which is presumably the point.

Migrants v. working people may be the government’s favourite false dichotomy but it isn’t the only one. They have consistently drawn a line between striking nurses, teachers and railway workers, on the one hand, and ‘ordinary working people’ on the other. Ministers queued up on Good Morning Britain to denounce Mick Lynch, the elected head of the RMT, as a ‘union baron’ bent on disrupting our journeys to work, school and – worst of all – Armed Forces Day celebrations.

As Stuart Hall observed, one of Thatcherism’s most successful sleights of hand was to position the organised working class against ‘the people’. Then, as now, workers striking for decent pay and conditions were said to be ‘holding the nation to ransom’ at the expense of an amorphous, depoliticised group of ‘ordinary people’ just trying to get on with their day. And then, as now, there was no serious effort by the Labour Party to counter with a convincing alternative of who ‘the people’ actually are.

NHS consultants and junior doctors in England are gearing up for another set of strikes this month, having refused the government’s ‘final offer’ of a 6 per cent pay rise (their Scottish counterparts secured a more generous deal in March). Rishi Sunak has blamed doctors’ industrial action for ballooning NHS waiting lists, even though they were at record lengths before the strikes began. The prime minister has also sought to drive a wedge between doctors and other public sector workers who have accepted sub-inflation pay rises.

While doctors have held out, arguing that their pay has fallen by 26 per cent in real terms since 2008, the Royal College of Nursing did not meet the mandatory threshold when it balloted for more strikes in June. Last week, teaching unions in England reluctantly accepted a pay offer of 6.5 per cent while warning that next year’s deal is a ‘whole other argument’. Teachers and nurses can, for now, be thanked for their services and welcomed back into the ranks of ‘the people’. The migrant care workers languishing in immigration detention have no such privilege.


  • 10 August 2023 at 4:57am
    Mark Shulgasser says:
    The fact that there is an overlap between the migrant population and 'ordinary working people' by no means proves that there's not a migrant problem. Nor does that fact that the governments programs for care of the elderly and destitute are inadequate in any way exonerate it for the insane migrant policies. The existence of false dichotomies is a straw man argument.

  • 10 August 2023 at 4:59am
    Mark Shulgasser says:
    Or if not straw man, then maybe what aboutism?

    • 10 August 2023 at 11:36am
      Ruaraidh Dobson says: @ Mark Shulgasser
      Hey Mark, congrats on googling the word "fallacy" there.

  • 10 August 2023 at 1:22pm
    Fred McElwaine says:
    There is absolutely no reason for any public sector worker to settle for below inflation pay increases. Why should the cost of everything except their labour increase? The argument against has been that it will drive inflation, clearly nonsense since there have been over a decade of real terms pay cuts and inflation has marched on regardless. The migrant non issue is a combination of a Tory party completely out of ideas flailing around looking for someone else to blame for 13 years of abject failure, knowing that the media has ploughed a fertile course for blaming everything on migrants and not the government.