Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Migrant workers: Unity needed to fight exploitation

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The issue of migrant labour is increasingly becoming a topic of discussion in the labour movement across the world. In the article below KEVIN PARSLOW from the Socialist Party (England & Wales) calls for the trade union movement to help migrant workers get organised and fight for their rights. We can’t let big business succeed in lowering wages and worsening conditions in a ‘race to the bottom’.THE BOSSES consider the use of migrant workers to be a vital part of the functioning of capitalist economic globalisation. The biggest economies in Europe and North America need new workers to fill the gaps which they claim are caused by an ageing workforce.

Migrant workers have become a familiar part of the working environment. Increasingly, the chances are that our workplaces and our streets are cleaned by workers not born in this country.

Migrant workers are used extensively in the food industry, catering, hotels and cleaning. They work long and often anti-social hours, including nights, early mornings and late evenings. Many migrant workers need more than one job to get by.

A Home Office study reported that in 2000 there were 4.5 million foreign-born people accounting for 9% of the working population. These people contributed 10.2% of all income tax, according to separate figures from the Institute for Public Policy Research. The number of non-European Economic Area foreign nationals granted work permits almost doubled from 63,000 in 1997 to 119,000 in 2003.

To this number must be added workers from the European Union accession countries who since last May have a legal right to live and work in Britain. About 300,000 people from the eight east European accession countries had applied to work in the UK in the last three years.

This was higher than the 5,000 to 13,000 annual applications forecast in government-commissioned research, but still small compared with the country’s total employment of 28.64 million and 631,800 job vacancies reported in March.

And, rather than being a burden on the state, as some commentators try to suggest, figures from the Institute for Public Policy think-tank have shown that for every £100 contributed by a UK-born worker in 2003-04, a migrant worker contributed £112.

“They are not a drain on the UK’s resources,” said Nick Pearce, IPPR director. “Our research shows that immigrants make an important fiscal contribution to the UK and pay more than their share.”

Wages attacked

YET THE reality is that these workers are used by the bosses to reduce the pay and conditions of all workers. In local government, agency workers can be found doing the same jobs as council employees, yet the agency workers will be on the minimum wage and worse conditions compared to the (still low) nationally agreed rates and conditions of full employees.

It is no surprise that employers continue to use this as a method of dividing the workforce. In the recent pensions strike in local government, agency workers were told to report for work as they were not part of the national pensions scheme.

Many immigrant workers are living on the margins of society. The gangmaster system has brought many to Britain with the temptation of a better life, many here without the full papers. When they get here they are mercilessly exploited by ruthless bosses and their agents, working long hours for low pay and having pay deducted, generally illegally, for ‘accommodation’.

The tragedy of the cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay shows the dangers facing immigrant workers, in this case from China, and is just the extreme of a system involving the food industry in general and agriculture in particular.

However, the support for ‘registration’ and ‘licensing’ will not solve the exploitation of migrant workers. The government was cool on licensing gangmasters until the revulsion following the Morecambe Bay tragedy forced them to act. But the bosses and their agents will always find a way to navigate around the laws.

The GMB union revealed that the government would only inspect 15% of applicants for licenses! Only strong organisation and a struggle against the excesses of capitalism will end this terrible system.

Sections of the bosses, their economists and their writers are encouraging the use of immigrant workers precisely because of their effects on the labour force as a whole. They want to reduce wage costs so that the profits for their system rise.


AT DIFFERENT times, the government and the bosses will either praise migrant workers to kick British-based workers or make them scapegoats for the problems of society.

Workers from Eastern Europe are more likely to work longer hours, claim less sick days and work harder in terms of productivity and speed than Britons, said a recent Home Office report.

However, in the recent uproar about the deportation of foreign prisoners after serving their sentence, the ‘discovery’ of ‘illegal’ workers at the Home Office itself was used as part of the scare. In other words, the government and the bosses use migrant workers to divide the workforce as a whole, just changing their emphasis when they think it necessary.

That’s why it is important for the trade union movement to organise migrant workers. Their position in society makes them liable to the grossest exploitation. That exploitation also develops anger against the system. The huge demonstrations in the United States of Hispanic workers against the Bush administration’s criminalisation of 12 million migrants, many of them workers and their families, shows the anger that can develop.

Earlier this year, the British government proposed a new points system for the enticement of migrant workers to Britain. Professional and skilled workers, particularly with invitations to work in Britain, would gain the highest number of points. Unskilled workers without invitations would get the lowest points.

The expectation is that unskilled jobs would be filled by migrants from the new Eastern European entrants of the neo-liberal European Union, who have the right to free entry to work in Britain.

In Britain, the trade unions have made a start in recruiting and organising migrant workers. The Transport and General Workers Union, for example, has produced material for Polish workers in the North-West, while in London Region 1 has set up an office for Latin-American workers, aiming to recruit many of the thousands of workers from Central and South America believed to be in London, and producing material in Spanish.

Migrant workers have featured prominently in recent disputes, including the cleaners in parliament and the continuing campaign for recognition and decent conditions in the offices at Canary Wharf.

Trade unions need to be more vigorous in their campaigns. Migrant workers will join unions if the unions are prepared to put forward fighting policies, campaign on them and show the determination to win. The loss of the Gate Gourmet dispute, involving many migrant workers, has shown how the determination of the trade union leaders does not always match that of the working class.

The trade unions have to campaign for a much higher minimum wage of at least £8 an hour, a 35-hour week, for health and safety legislation for the benefit of workers not the bosses and an end to the gangmaster system. They must also campaign for every migrant worker to have the right to stay in this country.

With such policies and a campaign to end the capitalist system, some of the most exploited victims of capitalist globalisation could become the most enthusiastic fighters to end it.


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