By Rida Vaquas
“A spectre is haunting Europe. The spectre of an immigrant working class. All the established powers have formed an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre: David Cameron and Nigel Farage, the Home Office and Landlords, the Parliamentary Labour Party and mugs”
“Immigration” is, according to politicians and press barons at establishments such as the Daily Mail, one of the voters’ biggest concerns. One of Labour’s five key pledges for this election, that has been notoriously publicised on a mug, was “controls on immigration”. Every day seems to bring some new story of a Labour politician saying something against immigration. You would be forgiven for thinking that “immigration” is some kind of meteorite hurling towards the UK, whose path must be diverted swiftly. But it’s not.
The fundamental basis of our position is that “immigration” cannot be divorced from human migrants. The continued scapegoating of immigration dominant in political discourse is the victimisation of migrants living here today, and contributes to a rising anti-migrant sentiment in Europe. The formulation of immigration as a problem that must be solved is the ideological justification for a persistent attack on migrants, especially working class migrants.
The Immigration Act 2014, with its provisions for charging some migrants for healthcare and the introduction of landlord checks, has immediate consequences for migrants in this country. Landlords have been gifted the power to act as the state’s immigration officials, entailing further repression of migrants, but more dangerously, to exclude migrants from housing altogether on a racist basis. There is every likelihood that landlords will simply turn away potential tenants with “foreign” sounding names, instead of performing a check. Concurrently charging anyone for access to the NHS threatens lives and undermines a universal healthcare system for us all.
This has to be placed within the context of a Europe-wide assault on migrants. In November 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that a Romanian woman was not entitled to claim Hartz IV (German welfare) in Leipzig, on grounds, reported in the German press, that it was immigration solely for social benefits. In the UK, this alleged “benefit tourism” has been promised to be “controlled” by Labour, promising that no one will be able to claim benefits until they have resided in Britain for two years.
We cannot lose sight of who this affects. Modern capitalism has been marked by increasing precarity of labour; half of the rise in employment from 2010 – 2012 has been in temporary jobs, and there has been an astronomical rise in the use of zero hour contracts. This wringing of surplus labour from the worker “without allowing him the labour-time necessary for his own subsistence” (Marx, Capital) and the corresponding insecurity of work itself mean that the welfare state has become more crucial simply to limit destitution. It is working class migrants who bear the brunt of restricting access to welfare. Far from tackling exploitation of migrants, it is an actual intensification of it; the policy absolves both the state and capitalists of the responsibility of providing means to live to migrants. At best, it will mean that migrants who become unemployed live in degrading and dehumanizing conditions. At worst it will mean people starve.
There is a perspective that immigrants are encroaching on our welfare, or “straining our services”. This is propagated mainly be people with an interest in cutting our services, such as the Conservative Party. This has been thoroughly debunked factually: many of our services, such as the NHS, rely on migrant workers. But it is worth considering for a moment who this “our” is. This “our” is frequently designated to mean “British” by the wealthy, and immigrants are constructed as to be in natural opposition. But there is another “our”, the collective “our” of the working class, regardless of nationality. These services, that immigrants supposedly “strain”, were not handed down to us by the British elite in an act of supreme benevolence – they were the fruit of a protracted struggle by workers, many migrants playing a part in that struggle. Immigrants are not straining services. The ruling class are undermining them.
A labour movement in which migrant workers play a role is all the stronger for it. The Grunwick Dispute in 1976 was led by South Asian women workers, and in demonstrations 20,000 people came out to support them, with the Union of Postal Workers voting to boycott postal services to Grunwick in solidarity. More recently the #3Cosas campaign led by University of London workers, many of them migrants, mobilised and made significant victories for sick pay and holidays. The interest of workers, to win humanity against an inhumane society, does not alter based on their immigration status.
Bosses draw dividing lines in order to exploit one group of workers more intensely, to alienate workers from worker. Those dividing lines are not ours, and they are not in our interest to perpetuate.
On this basis, it is time that we in the labour movement begin to intransigently and dedicatedly campaign for migrants’ rights, fighting for the repeal of all repressive legislation and resisting any further being introduced, be it by Labour or by the Tories.
Migrants are not who the labour movement needs to overcome. Rather migrants are a vital part of the labour movement. The bosses are who we need to overcome together.
The Labour Party leadership’s stance on these issues, attempting to triangulate with the anti-migrant right, has been poor to say the least – disgraceful, to use a more accurate word. Unfortunately, the trade unions have mostly kept quiet about this, though there are some signs they are starting to stir. We need an organised campaign by Labour Party members and affiliated trade unionists to challenge and change the party’s stance. Let’s build on the success of the “I am an immigrant” campaign and highlight not only immigrants’ contribution to society in general, but in our fights to transform society.
Rida is a school student in Birmingham and Young Labour Under 19s Officer. If you’re interested in the proposal she makes here, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org