Britain - An attack against immigrant workers is an attack against all workers

Sept/Oct 2006

On the 22 August, the Home Office published its review of migration into Britain both from outside Europe and from the first 8 European "accession" states - Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - the so-called "A8". Its "Accession Monitoring Report" was meant to provide an assessment of this migration two years after the integration of the A8 into the EU, which took place in May 2004. It indicated that between May 2004 and June 2006, 447,000 A8 workers had registered to work here, of whom 62% came from Poland, the largest country by far among the A8.

Although this was a lot more than had been initially predicted by the Home Office, this figure was no great revelation when it was finally published, since statistics had been collected on a quarterly basis - and published each quarter since May 2004 anyway.

However that did not stop the tabloids from using the opportunity for one of their xenophobic rants, with headlines accusing Polish workers in particular and immigrant workers in general, of "swamping" and "flooding" the country.

The tabloid newspaper, the Sun made its habitual claim that these workers were a drain on the system, writing that "a secret Home Office report revealed that Britain's schools, hospitals and housing are facing meltdown amid a huge surge in newcomers"

Which is somewhat rich, given that, for their day-to-day operation, schools and hospitals and many other public services rely heavily on immigrant workers, both from Europe and the Third World. In fact, these public services might well be "facing meltdown" if these workers were not filling the many gaps - at both ends of the "skills" scale. What would happen for instance, if 35,000 nurses from all over the world and over 1,000 dentists, mainly from Poland and India, had not responded to the recruitment calls which the NHS had to make, because there were not enough home-grown qualified staff to meet need due to a legacy of both Tory and Labour government cutbacks over two decades?

Having added up new arrivals from eastern Europe, plus the estimate of "self-employed" from east Europe and their dependents (600,000), along with the non-EU workers with work permits or the right to settle (579,565 with 87,000 dependents), plus 123,000 refugees granted asylum since 2004, the Sun claimed that " over one million migrants 1.4m, in fact) have poured into Britain in two years" inviting readers to have their say against it.

However, these figures do not make much sense. For instance, although east Europeans register for employment, they do not have to de-register when they leave. And a significant number among them come to work in short-term and seasonal jobs and then return to their countries. So the government's statistics cannot be used to measure net immigration into Britain. Besides, if the Sunobjects to this inflow of workers, it should also accept that other countries should take the same stand, which would mean that the over 4 million British citizens living outside Britain would soon be "pouring" back into Britain!

However, despite the xenophobic arithmetic of the tabloids, Home Secretary, John Reid, had already gone one better.

He had made it known privately that he was convinced that the "British public" were worried about the possible strain on housing and public services if no restrictions were placed on immigrants from the two further countries due to join the EU in May 2007 - that is Romania and Bulgaria.

Undoubtedly the working class has plenty of reasons to be worried about the lack of decent affordable housing and the fact that public services, especially the NHS, seem to be increasingly rationed. But linking these worries to a demand to prevent Romanian and Bulgarian workers from coming to Britain when their countries joint the EU next year is preposterous. Not only because few people are actually aware of the EU accession treaty concerning Romania and Bulgaria, but because if Reid is so conscious of the current housing crisis and shortages in public services, why isn't his government doing something about it instead of scape-goating future migrant workers?

More revealingly, however, according to the Independentnewspaper, Reid had told colleagues "I don't believe in the free movement of labour: I believe the situation should be managed. You could hear the same from ethnic minorities. There's nothing racist about it."He had also issued a statement as early as 7 August, in which he said that new "independent immigration advisors" should set an optimum level of immigration consistent with the country's need and economic stability. He said this capping of immigration was a way of taking the issue of immigration "away from the party political football"to "get away from this daft so-called politically correct notion that anybody who wants to talk about immigration is somehow a raist" Reid was thus paving the way for another tightening of the repressive policies against immigrant workers adopted by his predecessors, already using the same kind of xenophobic demagogy.

And already at this stage, reports and articles were appearing in the right-wing press calling for restrictions against Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the light of the "unprecedented" numbers who had come to Britain since 2004 from the A8. The Sunday Express of 20 August had a headline saying "HIV children bringing timebomb to Britain" suggesting that the NHS could be overrun by HIV infected Romanian teenagers!

Anyway, within just a few weeks, Labour ministers were briefing on plans to introduce a system whereby Bulgarians and Romanians would have to apply for work permits to come to Britain, and would have to prove they could fill specific skill shortages before being allowed to enter Britain. In other words they would be treated like non-EU work seekers.

Double standards for EU workers

According to the founding principles of the European Union, the free movement of persons is one of the most fundamental freedoms, guaranteed by Community law. This includes the right for EU nationals to move to another EU Member State to take up employment and establish themselves in the host state with their family members. Of course, despite its lofty founding principles, the EU, has never been able to function really as a "union", due to the rivalries between national capitalist classes. The variety of restrictions imposed on free movement of workers throughout the EU reveals the hypocrisy of the EU's political leaders in all its glory.

When, in April 2003, the existing 15 member states of the EU agreed the entry of 10 new states (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia - the "A8" - and Cyprus and Malta) they decided that this principle of free movement was not so fundamental after all.

So in May 2004, when the accession took place, Cyprus and Malta were given full membership of the "Free Movement of Workers Agreement", but the other 8 countries were subject to a 7-year transitional period, divided into 3 phases. This means that the 17 "full member countries" can impose restrictions on the access of A8 workers to their national labour markets up until 30 April 2011. The first phase of the Transitional Agreement ended in May this year, when many EU countries either lessened restrictions or lifted them completely. But they can also re-impose restrictions at a later date.

While much was made of Blair's "leading the way" in "opening labour markets", in fact the British government did notactually grant workers from 8 new accession countries complete freedom to work and live here - unlike the governments of Sweden and Ireland, which did.

Unless A8 workers had previously established themselves in Britain (on the old work permit scheme) and already qualified for residence, they have been required to register within one month of finding a job with the "Worker Registration Scheme" and pay a fee of £70 to do so. If they fail to do this, they become illegal. During their first 12 months of working here, they are also not eligible to claim any form of unemployment benefit. And every time they change jobs, during these 12 months, they must re-register, although they do not have to pay £70 each time. Which is just as well, because 49% of those registered are in casual jobs - most likely as "agency" temps. And agency temps do not have full employment rights, like the right to equal pay for equal work, thanks to Britain's "opt out" from EU legislation.

Besides, the government's statistics show that most of the new A8 workers are young and single - 43% between 18 and 24, a good number of whom would only qualify for the lower rate of the minimum wage, of £4.25/hr for workers between 18 and 22. A further 39% of all these registered workers are between 25 and 34. And almost half of the total say they do not intend to stay in the country for more than two years.

Of course, once these workers have been working - without interruption - for 12 months, they can apply for residence here and then will no longer have to register each time they change jobs and they will also be eligible for unemployment benefit. It is worth mentioning, given the way in which the tabloid press regularly accuses immigrant workers of coming to Britain in order to claim benefits, that in the 2 years during which A8 workers could gain access to these benefits, there have been only 4,083 claimants for job seekers allowance among them and 1,777 claims for income support. But only 768 were "allowed". Tax credits, were paid to 14,009 low income families but only 110 families have been housed by local authorities!

The bosses' attraction for cheap labour

There is a section of so-called "business leaders" who would like there to be "unlimited" immigration from the new EU states of Bulgaria and Romania when they accede in May 2007.

Many of these advocates are members of the "Business for New Europe " which wants closer European integration. Among the supporters of this line are the UK heads of Sainsbury, Centrica (which owns British Gas), Merrill Lynch and the Wall Street investment bank, with support from Boots, Carphone Warehouse, BP and the National Grid.

They point to various economic reports which show that immigration boosted the UK economy by £2.5bn a year and last year, contributed 0.5% to 1% to economic growth. Indeed, the ex-CBI chief, Digby Jones, wrote an article in the Daily Telegrapharguing that restrictions on immigration would harm the British economy. "Stop immigration and you stop building houses, schools, hospitals, roads and offices in the UK. If 'they' were to 'go home', you can forget about this year's harvest in our fields. Britain is wealthier because of immigration". This apparently liberal view is entirely self interested of course. Jones is not arguing that the more culturally diverse a society becomes, the richer it is. Nor is he celebrating the growth and invigoration of the working class, injected as it is, by new, young blood, which is certainly a cause for celebration.

In fact it was Ed Balls, secretary to the Treasury, who revealed the reason for these bosses' welcome to immigrant workers when he said the influx of workers "helped keep the lid on wage growth that in turn had helped keep interest rates low"

If what Ed Balls says is true, it has less to do with the inflow of immigrants than with two factors which are completely unrelated: the failure of the trade-union movement to defend the material interests of the working class, immigrant or not, over the past two decades, on the one hand; and, on the other, the complacent attitude of the government which turns a blind eye on the intolerable practices of some employers.

There have been many reports on the substandard working conditions which A8 workers have been subjected to, and many instances where they have not even received the minimum wage, because of spurious deductions made by employers for transport or accommodation. For instance bosses can legally deduct charges for accommodation from their wages - but these deductions are not meant to exceed a maximum of £3.90 per day if the worker is paid the minimum wage. However, it is difficult for these workers to defend their rights, because if they lose their jobs before they have completed the 12 months qualification period for any kind of rights or benefits, they often have to go back home, leaving behind unpaid wages and losing any chance to hold their employer to account.

Unsurprisingly, among these rogue bosses are some of the big suppliers of supermarket chains. For instance, at the strawberry firm, S&A Produce, in Hertfordshire, which supplies Sainsbury and Tesco, migrant workers were being charged for basic medical services (despite the fact that they are entitled to free NHS care from day one) and an additional sum for the provision of overnight accommodation at the end of their contract. However, it must be said that in this case the T&G took up the grievances of 200 of the workers involved. But how many other bosses get away with such methods?

The inflow of immigrant workers benefits British business in other ways. New businesses sprung up to service the needs of these workers as well as delicatessens, internet cafes and money transfer agencies... More significantly, these workers have contributed to the "buy to let" housing boom - even if, on their wages, most of them have to share bedrooms and crowd into tiny and shoddily "refurbished" flats which are substandard and inadequate. They have been providing a whole layer of middle-class landlords with a bonanza!

Not all bosses welcome the inflow of immigrant workers, however. The CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce point to the rise in official unemployment in the last quarter. They point out that if jobs are taken up by workers who are not entitled to unemployment benefits (eg., newly arrived A8 workers who have not been working here without interruption for 12 months), then more home-grown workers will have to claim social security benefit. As a result, complains David Frost, chief of the Chambers of Commerce: "That's not a recipe for success. It will not be a cohesive society". What hypocrisy!

As if the inflow of immigrants had to translate mechanically into an increase of unemployment! As if there was not enough work - and therefore jobs - for everyone in this country, including for all immigrant workers! Yet the CBI is well-placed to know, since its members are responsible for most of the current and past job cuts, where unemployment comes from. If it was not for the bosses' on-going drive to boost profits, cut jobs and impose longer hours on the remaining workers, by reducing real wages for a whole section of the working class through the process of casualisation, unemployment would be much lower than it is today. But unemployment is not inevitable. It would be possible to share the work available between everyone while guaranteeing a decent income for all. Of course, this would require that the working class movement imposes on the capitalist class to provide the necessary resources out of its huge profits and wealth. But if that is what it takes, so be it!

Another turn of the screw on asylum seekers

It is worth mentioning one specific aspect of Labour's recent measures concerning asylum seekers - i.e. refugees from the world's many conflict zones. This vulnerable section of immigrants has more and more been subject to criminalisation by the government and demonisation by the right-wing media. As a result the detention of whole families, including small children for months on end, in what amount to prison camps, has been largely swept under the carpet for a very long time. Worse, the government has played up to the right wing campaign against asylum seekers by constantly tightening its measures against them and boasting of how many more "failed asylum seekers" it is deporting month on month.

So just after the "shock-horror" statistics on east European migrant workers were made public, the government announced "powerful new measures to strengthen our borders and to accelerate deportations of foreign nationals who pose a threat to national security" In fact these were measures which were due to come into effect anyway, as part of the staged implementation of the new 2006 Immigration Act. But the Home Office used the opportunity to make it sound as if it was somehow doing this to respond to the influx of immigrant workers!

So what are the "new" measures? The most significant is the removal of the right to appeal against deportation in the UK, except on "human rights" grounds. This means that deportees who have been assessed as a "threat to national security" can no longer appeal against this - and if they survive their deportation back home they will have to appeal from there, unless they can find a judge who can issue an injunction on human rights grounds, within the brief period between notice of deportatin and the departure of their flight - usually not more than 7 days.

An immediate high-profile demonstration of the government's new, "tough", stance was made by forcibly deporting 32 Iraqi Kurds on 5 September. In fact, because of the dangers of flying to Iraq, the deportees were flown to Cyprus in a charter plane and then on to Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in an MoD plane. Ministers were reported as saying that it was important to demonstrate that people will be sent back to Iraq to "maintain the integrity of our asylum system".Quite how it is a demonstration of "integrity" to deport asylum seekers to the bloody chaos of Iraq, and what is more, a chaos that this government has helped to create, would be hard for anyone to understand, but not for Labour politicians, apparently. They have been applying this same policy to political refugees from Afghanistan, Congo, Zimbabwe, etc., for some time, even before the new provisions came in this August.

As it happened, five of the initial group of Iraqi deportees did manage to find a judge to issue an injunction. But Reid had already anticipated this and five more Iraqis were put on the plane in their places. "We ensured that a charter plane left the UK full with 32 failed asylum seekers on board" said a Home Office official. Reid let it be known that he stood by the position which had been laid out in a letter to the High Court, that because of the "complexities, practicalities and costs involved in such charter flights, it was essential that removals were not disrupted or delayed by large numbers of last-minute claims for permission to seek judicial review." In fact the Home Office also ensured that the Refugee Legal Centre which had acted for the five Iraqis was not able to gain access to all of the deportees and had only disclosed the flight departure time the day before the deportation. So much for the restricted, but still existent "right to appeal" that asylum seekers are supposed to have!

How Labour came to its "managed immigration"

Beyond the policy affecting A8 workers and the restrictions which are intended to apply to Romanians and Bulgarians from next year, Labour's immigration policies for non-EU workers have already been "reformed"- in other words tightened - 5 times since it came to power.

It was David Blunkett who, in 2002, paved the way for Labour's present plans, in a set of reforms entitled "Secure Borders, Safe Haven - Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain. Despite its title, its thrust was that immigration should only take place insofar as it suited the specific needs of British business, and it began to institute a much more rigid selection process for those "worthy" enough to come to Britain.

At this stage no capping or quota system was thought to be necessary, except when it came to the less skilled workers. They were to be admitted only under certain schemes lasting up to 12 months and of course their dependents were excluded from any right to accompany them.

It was this system which was first branded as "managed migration". It required a parallel system, however, by which the state was able to accurately assess the level of demand for the right number of skilled engineers, doctors, maths teachers, etc., at any one time and allow them in, while it closed the door to other skilled workers or professionals who were not, or were no longer, needed. What is more, the surveillance of such immigrants would be needed to ensure that they did not overstay and that they "performed" well enough so that any entitlement to residence (after four years) could either be granted, or refused, and they could be despatched back home in the latter case.

By February 2005, the government had developed its much more detailed 5-year model for " selective" and "managed migration", which rests so heavily on control and surveillance. Ministers reckon that such control can be achieved through new technologies. To quote from a government consultation document: "Over the next five years, new technology, rigorouschecks and robust use of the necessary powers will strengthen the UK's border control and in-country enforcement." And inextricably linked to this "in-country enforcement" is the use of biometric data in passports and ultimately, biometric identity cards for the whole population in Britain, of course.

But even with such devices, the government needs to co-opt other agencies into a policing role - and employers, the NHS and other welfare institutions are expected to play their role in this. So reporting on the whereabouts and activities of individual immigrants is meant to be done at the point of entering employment, enrolling in education and training, attending GP surgeries or when applying to marry in a Registry Office.

In fact up until 1997, there were no penalties for employers of undocumented workers. Just before Labour came into power, these were introduced by Major's government, making it a criminal offence under Section 8 of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act to employ a person who does not have the right to work in Britain - an offence punishable by a fine up to £5,000 per employee. Between 1998 and 2002, only 22 prosecutions for this offence took place, and indeed employers could generally escape prosecution by cooperating with the authorities. However, in the run-up to the May 2005 elections, Blair's government tightened this law, and introduced £2,000 spot fines for employers. Over the last year there has been a sharp increase in enforcement actions against "unauthorised work". This has had the effect of turning employers into frontline enforcers of immigration control, so that they will check the status of any of their employees who appear to be foreign (or more specifically, black), demanding that they show their passports even if they have been employed in a company for years and years.

As for policing marriage, a piece of incredible legislation came into force in February 2005, by which foreign nationals are required to obtain a certificate of approval if they want to marry... except if the marriage is to take place in the Church of England!

Immigrant workers or "global" temps?

The government's 5-year plan for "Making migration work for Britain" sets out a highly selective five tier system for categorising would-be immigrants, whereby they will be chosen according to strict criteria on the basis of what they have to offer - either in terms of money or expertise.

The first tier is for the rich - investors or highly skilled professionals who will be admitted without restriction and be allowed to gain residence, provided their knowledge of the English language and of "life in the UK" is adequate. Tier 2 is for skilled workers with a job offer or fitting a specific requirement. A new Skills Advisory Body will define at any particular moment where there is a skills gap. Alternatively, an employer could obtain a work permit for a job which has been advertised in the EU for a period of time without success.

Tier 3 is for those who fit into a specific scheme aimed at low skilled workers - only where there is an identified gap in the economy. Tier 4 is for students and tier 5 for visiting workers, cultural exchanges and special development schemes.

More ominous is a proposal for a system of bonds for workers in Tier 3 - by which they should pay a deposit against leaving when their time is up, which will be refunded, no doubt, at the border!

The 2006 Immigration, Nationality and Asylum Act gave immigration officials increased powers of arrest and detention, while the right of appeal has been all but withdrawn. Last year, a new Asylum and Immigration Tribunal was set up and "no win, no fee" legal aid measures introduced, which means that legal representatives have to work for nothing and only be paid retrospectively, if they win. And this year, the qualifying period allowing immigrants legally working and living in the country to qualify for resident status is extended from 4 years to 5.

The justification of all these repressive measures is the estimate, or rather, "guess-timate", that there may be up to 500,000 undocumented workers in Britain - something which has been the source of some embarrassment to the Home Office, which obviously cannot put a figure on the numbers, since by definition they are not registered anywhere. But of course it was precisely the closing of all legitimate channels for immigration for the poor and non-skilled which resulted in this "illegal" immigration in the first place.

What these plans really aim at, is to provide British bosses with a controlled supply of pliable workers, which can be increased and decreased at will, to meet their needs of manpower. Having the possibility to play on short term contracts, with which they can prevent immigrant workers from getting resident status, the bosses are in a position to blackmail them into accepting far worse conditions than they would otherwise. In short, this law is a recipe for turning immigrant workers into low-cost temps.

Of course, the government hopes that its xenophobic demagogy (even if it is not "racism", as Reid claims, what difference does it make?) will help to get British workers to look the other way and leave their immigrant brothers and sisters alone to face Labour's attacks. Whether this will work according to plan, however, is another question.

It is not in the interests of British workers to allow the bosses to get away with such methods, which can only divide the ranks of the working class and undermine its ability to defend its collective interests. Contrary to tabloid propaganda, British workers have nothing to fear from their immigrant brothers and sisters. They form a whole new generation of young men and women whose morale and energy have not been undermined by the past 25 years of retreat and austerity experienced by the British workforce. By working side by side with British workers and being confronted with the same exploitation by the same companies, these immigrant workers could reinforce the working class movement of this country in a decisive way.

The British trade-union movement has proved incapable of defending jobs, wages and conditions for the past two decades. But by joining ranks, British and immigrant workers together, around an old demand of the working class movement - that all those doing the same job should have the same rights and conditions - they would have the means to nip the bosses' manoeuvres in the bud and, who knows, maybe start to turn the tide...