A guest post by Carl Rowlands*
The usual mixture of tourists and workers arriving at Luton Airport yesterday must have wondered what was going on, as they were greeted by the beaming face of Labour immigration spokesman Keith Vaz. Clicking seamlessly into 'labourist' mode, Labour's front bench has emerged as defenders of the UK's lowest paid, in opposition to the recent arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria who, Labour worries, will drive down the terms and conditions at the lower end of the labour market.
This can surely be considered something of a change of heart, given the previous Labour government's stalwart defence of the UK's flexible labour market at a European level and extremely close relationships with the employment agencies who have inserted themselves into the relationship between casualised labour and capital. Alec Reed, founder of REED employment agency, was a New Labour donor/insider and 'Third Way' capitalist, and became a major player in Labour's Academy programme as well as helping to drive a Labour initiative for private healthcare. This led to his company, Reed Healthcare, becoming a major player in the earliest years of private sector involvement in the NHS.
Labour's advocacy of flexible labour markets and its adherence to light regulation of employment lasted almost until the very end of its term of office, right up to January 2010 and the Agency Workers Regulations, which came into effect in 2011. These included a provision (a 12-week 'qualifying period') whose effect was to exclude seasonal work and the majority of casualised employment, since an employment agency would only need to drop an employee for one day in order to reset the qualification period.
Such intricacies form an important part of the cold realities at the lower end of the UK labour market. Jonathan Portes and other liberals who have come to the defence of immigration from Eastern Europe tend to gloss over these aspects of life at the casualised, low-waged end of the British economy. Rather than seeing this form of immigration as resulting in the displacement or repression of British low-paid workers, it can be seen as representing a general affirmation of a low-wage, low-skill economy, a reification of the UK’s treatment of its lowest-paid employees. Agencies continue to play an important role in brokering jobs on a day-by-day basis, whereby many prospective workers are only informed a few hours before they are required. It is unsurprising that employers paying depressed wages have collaborated with agencies and other sub-contractors to ensure a supply of cheap labour from Eastern Europe, which can be easily placed on standby when not required. Often this has involved the use of 'tied' accommodation, where a sub-contractor provides some kind of basic accommodation, whilst taking a percentage of the wages. As employment agencies remain so lightly regulated, it isn't clear how they can be directed away from choosing workers from Eastern Europe, as Labour seem to suggest is possible.
Supporters of the principle of immigration and free movement risk a shallow advocacy of the realities of a divided Europe. The 'push' from Eastern European countries is a result of the chronic failure of these economies to create jobs and opportunities for their young people; accentuated by the precipitous decline in investment after the financial crash of 2008. The former Eastern Bloc countries are now universally characterised by huge increases in inequality and the concentrated power of domestic political and economic elites, the emergence of which continues to choke the opportunities of young people entering their respective labour markets.
The high level of migration into the UK from the former communist states is therefore indicative of the unhealthy economic state of both the originating countries and the UK itself. In the long-term, the effect of this migration, so heavily focused upon young people with advanced language skills, will be to accentuate the existing demographic difficulties which are already acting as a downward drag on long-run growth rates in Eastern Europe. As these populations age, the loss of young people, potentially on a long-term basis, may have continued negative effects upon the skills base and the budgetary condition of these countries.
Such high levels of immigration, in the absence of significant factors to pull people back to their originating countries, may help consign whole areas of Europe to economic and political decay. The 'push' factors driving this migration arise from the poverty of Romania and Bulgaria, and do not a represent a healthy phenomenon; these factors represent a worsening economic crisis. Whilst Labour politicians and Migration Watch are shamelessly attempting to tap into anti-immigrant sentiment, simply accepting the resulting migration as 'normal' doesn't help address the widening inequalities which sit at the root cause.
Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.