Four Pictures of Migration

by Carl Rowlands

If Europe is to be defended as a sphere of genuine international cooperation and integration, the EU must be saved from itself.

First published: 10 June, 2014 | Category: Economy, Employment & Welfare, Europe, Migration

The docks: the ghost of capitalism past.

Let’s start with a dockyard in the early twentieth century. In the first glimmerings of dawn, men queue by a wall, and a foreman walks up and down, selecting which men are going to be offered work on that particular day. This may seem almost a caricature of heartless capitalism, yet it is a deep folk memory within the labour movement. Mines, docks and countless factories were run on this basis until the first majority Labour government in 1945. 

If this queue of candidates is swollen by more people there will be less chance of good money and—most crucially—less chance of being picked. Let’s relate this to the present day. Statistics for the UK suggest that the downwards pressure exerted by immigration from EU countries on lower-bracket wages and employment is small and may be cancelled out in the long run. But the subjective effect on the perceived prospects of the lower-paid—those standing by the wall—will be magnified, especially if the recent arrivals are young, keen and well-educated. 

Left-wing supporters of immigrant labour would need to understand how the queue by the wall operates in order to understand working-class fear of immigration. Though the work itself has changed, the low-paid in the UK occupy a world in which many of the old demons have crept back, as neoliberalism has evolved into a new feudalism. The essential guarantors of economic security—a pension and property—are dependencies upon a labour market that, for many, simply fails to provide. 

Chicken processing unit: post-communist malaise.

A poultry manufacturers in Norfolk, in the 1990s. It’s an unpleasant place, possibly because it is full of dead animals, and in addition because it is de-unionised. Incidentally, the holding company is a major contributor to Conservative Party funds. A number of the workers are from Eastern Europe. Many of them are formerly industrial workers in the steel and mining industries, made redundant as a result of shock therapy and the massive economic collapse of Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. They’ve signed contracts which they couldn’t understand and, having arrived at the promised workplace, they find that much of their wage packet is being taken by the agencies and middlemen who have provided accommodation and transport. The poultry manufacturer is quite happy to have workers as cheaply as possible, and given that the main personnel functions are outsourced to a number of agencies, it doesn’t act as an employer with responsibilities. 

The electronics factory: a welfare state for migratory capital.

Our next destination is the opening of a new electronics assembly factory in one of the EU accession countries. It’s being opened by the Minister for Economic Development and has been given a tax break and a grant. The company won’t have to pay corporation tax for ten years, in recognition of the work it provides to a recession-hit region on Europe’s semi-periphery. Though the building is new, the assembly line is actually transplanted from an industrial area in South Wales. The factory has relocated to the East in order to take advantage of lower labour costs and a favourable business environment, as governments try to secure foreign investment. 

Economies of the semi-periphery have no means by which they can compete with Western corporations on the same level, even in domestic markets, and it remains as hard to break into new markets as it ever was.  Yet standing triumphantly over the ruins of socialism, corporations observe that the economies of the East have a useful dual function. Eastern European countries represent a set of enthusiastic if hard-pressed consumer markets with a considerable appetite for the trappings and goods of modern, transnational capitalism. They can also be used to compete with Western labour: the threat of factories and assembly lines moving East can have a disciplining effect upon labour in Western Europe, creating a new, tight dynamic within the Single Market. For the countries of the East, with fairly developed infrastructure, there is no realistic game in town other than trying to attract Western investment, usually by doing things cheaper. The jobs created are usually never enough for a post-industrial society—a few hundred here, another few hundred there—and the workers receive a fraction of the salaries in Western Europe. But there isn’t a serious alternative.

The Hotel: the spectre of fascism.

We arrive, finally, in a hotel dining room, somewhere in England. The waitresses are from different Eastern European countries, serving a room of well-to-do middle-aged and elderly English people. Many of the latter are reading the Daily Mail, which has led with a story about ‘hordes’ of immigrants from Eastern Europe being held at huge detention centres in the south of England.  The status of ‘guest workers’ has been revised, with short-term visas and the threat of instant repatriation. Rather than increasing wage levels in certain sectors, these measures have had the opposite effect of increasing the number of zero-hour contracts and agency staff, as many foreign workers fly in for very short periods of work and are then forced immediately to leave. 

Beyond the precipice: formulating a response based on social justice.

The debate regarding immigration goes on; passing through the same turnstiles, jumping through the same hoops, but more and more rapidly, and with a deepening intensity.  As we know, capitalism has been producing unplanned waves of migrants ever since the Enclosures Acts of the seventeenth century. Anti-migrant political backlashes go back just as long. The latest intervention comes from a set of right-wing Labour MPs, who are demanding that the Party promise measures to prevent immigration from Eastern Europe. 

The substance of their call betrays its opportunism. It makes little sense, presenting an assorted grab-bag of unrelated and unsubstantiated claims: ‘We believe [my emphasis] that the lack of affordable housing, school places, hospital capacity and transport infrastructure to accommodate this influx of people means that poorer people's living standards have been squeezed’. 

Immigration is therefore blamed for the high cost of accommodation, and, mysteriously, for overcrowded trains and a shortage of school places (the latter is, in fact, caused in no small part by Michael Gove’s experiments with ‘free schools’, which Labour has controversially decided to support). Curiously, the Labour MPs seem not to have a problem with the influx of money from Russia, the Middle East and China’s super-rich into London’s overheated property market, even though this may represent one of the main problems in relation to housing in the capital. Nor do they notice the state’s failure to provide significant amounts of social housing by either building or procurement.  

The Labour MPs are distressed, instead, by the ‘number of citizens from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia’ coming to the UK to live and work. The problem here is that the migrants are poor. It is only the poor people from the accession countries who are to be targeted. In this case, our MPs welcome the EU, welcome the chance to travel across the continent, maybe to own a property in Spain or France, but do not want the UK to have to deal with Europe’s economic losers—or simply, the young, surplus workers of the East.

What can be done? Within the EU there has been little analysis of the ‘push’ factors driving people abroad, nor of the dynamic which forces remaindered national economies into undercutting each other even as they export masses of ‘surplus’ labour. Looking at the demographics, these ‘surplus’ workers ought to be crucial to the labour market of Eastern European countries; with a continual drain upon the actively participating workforce, it is clear that these countries are the long-term losers of the process. In theory, those destination countries that can successfully integrate and naturalise migrants will be most likely to withstand the worst of the demographic crises in the next thirty years—though this makes certain assumptions regarding the supply of resources and productivity, amongst other things.

In light of the fact that so much immigration is being driven by huge, structurally reinforced inequality, and that this immigration may contribute to the perpetuation of inequality in the countries of origin, it probably isn’t good enough to simply defend immigration on current terms. There are existing arguments related to establishing a European Minimum Wage. Arguably these do not go far enough. These need to be connected to the campaign for a Living Wage, even for a new approach to Wage Councils, with minimum wages to be determined in each sector, and then linking access to labour markets to a planned upwards convergence of these rates across different countries. There are also arguments for a radical diminution of the European Union’s economic role, as it has repeatedly proven itself incapable of delivering social justice within between countries.

If the European Left is serious about economic and political redress—fair trade, rather than free trade; a programme for social justice and common ownership; re-regulation of employment markets—then it is on a collision course with the EU in its current form. Certainly, as the Labour MPs’ emulation of UKIP indicates, the alternatives to fundamental EU reform may be far, far worse. The harsh irony is this: any defence of Europe as a sphere of genuine co-operation may require radical governments to dissolve and restructure many of the neoliberal aspirations and structures of the existing European Union—to rescue Europe from its own captured state.

Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.

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