Beyond ‘us’ versus ‘them’: Why the energy and idealism of both migrants and citizens will be needed to build a better future

Less migration will mean more opportunities for natives is a common argument across the political spectrum today. Wrong. Less migration will mean more exploitation of vulnerable British workers, and the closure of any hope for a better future for all.

Whilst the government’s legislation drafters are hard at work producing the immigration bill promised in the Queen’s Speech we have been provided with an excellent example of the reason why their work is being carried out on the basis of fundamentally flawed logic.

Ministers have been keen to attribute the driver forces of migration to such pull factors as the social security system and the free services available from the NHS.  In their search for levers they can pull which can be presented to as plausible mechanisms for asserting control over the movement of people the government is telling voters that its new Bill will do the job they want to see done.

MRN has longed argued that this is nonsense, on the solid grounds that the evidence shows migrants do not come for the fringe benefits they state provides in the way of social welfare: they come in the expectation that they will find jobs over here. The fact that inward migration has remained buoyant even during a long period of recession relates to the fact that even in hard times the UK has still been creating jobs.

Strange facts about UK jobs

The UK has been displaying some strange features in its labour market position since 2010, with employment actually growing even though output across the whole of the economy has been falling.  More workers but less being produced is a weird and worrying position to be in and requires some explanation.  It seems to imply that business opportunities for the high productivity companies are still in deep recession whilst at the same time those providing goods and services at low costs have, at least until recently, been managing to strengthen their market position.

Low costs in today’s world often translates into low wages and long hours.  In other words, what we have been seeing in recent months is a confirmation that the UK economy is now being held up more than every by the sort of business activity that is most likely to be associated with the exploitation of the labour of migrants and other groups of vulnerable workers.

So what do we do about it?  Opponents of migration believe that the answer is to choke of the supply of easily exploitable labour, forcing low productivity businesses to recruit natives at wage levels which are likely to be attractive. In theory this might be possible, if the government of the day was prepared to support these weak companies as they made the transition from low to higher skill work models.  Assuming a bottomless money-pit and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to force a transition from one type of economy to another will make anything possible, but also extremely unlikely.

In reality the commitment of all the main political parties to some form of austerity measures will mean that the subsidy the government can be expected to provide to business is most likely to take the form of the provision of other sources of cheap labour, prised from the native workers who have been enrolled on the disability and social security registers for long years past.  The problem with this strategy is that it does not address the pressing need to move from business plans based on cheap labour jobs to higher productivity skilled labour - the plan assumes only that the jobs once done by migrants will now be done by Brits.

Increasing hardship

Across the country tens of thousands of British worker are facing the prospect of been forced off disability and job seeker benefits in order take the insecure, low wage jobs that are on offer. The political rhetoric of ensuring that ‘work always pays’ might be technically true, but it is increasingly the case that for millions of working people employment officers only a means to survive until the next pay cheque.  Wage stagnation, impacting most harshly on those at the bottom end of the labour force, means enforced dependency on jobs in the low productivity sector and lives that will become steadily harsher and poorer as each year goes by.

So, if pushing migrants out of highly exploited low pay jobs to replace them with British workers does not seem such an attractive ways to go, should we be content with the present arrangements where we import all the drudge workers from abroad?  It will seem provocative to say it, but there are circumstances where we ought to be prepared to admit that continuing with high levels of unskilled migration combined with a social security system protecting some vulnerable workers from exploitation is the best of options available to us.  Here’s the reason why.

The difference lies in the circumstances in which groups of workers find themselves caught in low wage/long hour jobs.  If this happens because natives are forced out of social security then the context would be one of sweeping defeat for British workers as the vestiges of the welfare state were swept away in order to force them into brutally competitive labour markets.   As we have seen from developments in the last few months, loss of social security rapidly translates into loss of housing security, with tens of thousands being uprooted and scattered across the country to wherever accommodation is cheapest, which is inevitably means going to the places where jobs are hardest to come by. 

Migrant energy

The absence of social security and access to decent housing has long been the conditions of life for migrant workers, as they scour continents looking for niches of economic activity which might provide a means to survive.  The interesting and important fact about migrants is that they have often spent decades building up the mutual aid and support networks that enable them to maintain solidarity in times of adversity, and turn the handicap of migration into a strategy not just of survival, but of recovery and advance.  It is often the case that migrants show up with educational standards and aspirations that push them beyond their immediate entrapment in low paid jobs, moving forward with plans for personal advancement and improvement.

The challenge here is to marry the energy of migration to the aspirations for fairness and social justice which are supposed to be the ideals behind our welfare state.  The focus for plans for change ought to be the structure of our labour markets, which have been allowed to develop for too long on the basis that employment for an unacceptably high proportion of the population will be limited to low pay, dead end jobs that offer no prospects for long term betterment.  The pressing need if the UK, along with other countries in the post-industrial work, is to make every job a decent job, providing a platform for all wage earners to build better lives for themselves. To accomplish this task we will need to come up with strategies that bring migrants and natives to work together to reach commonly agreed goals and targets, rather than pitching them against each other.

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For 'competitive labour markets', read 'exploitative'. I've worked in these dead end factory jobs, working on less than half a decent wage in mind-numbing and ultimately physically disabling work. Your vision of a worthwhile society is hardly bolstered by such activity. Indeed, the minute that it appears that one has a legitimate case for disability 'benefit', one automatically feels entitled - what the hell else has society ever done except exploit one?

The answer in my opinion is more along the Nordic model of 'social firms'. These act as half-way houses, not-for-profit yet commercial entities that provide the flexibility and stability of a working environment that helps long-term workers adapt back into the world of work and to develop skills and experience that makes them less likely to fall into the kind of 'dead-end' jobs that probably motivated them to skip work life at the very first opportunity.

There will always be a cost in quality if you go purely for productivity or price competition. The market dumbs down, at least at the bottom end, while the profit siphoning ensures a vigorous luxuries market at the high end. A thousand workers keeping one landowner in the lap of luxury - some things don't change. Except today the ties are hidden, and we no longer live on their 'estates'.

I'm amazed that anyone is motivated to work these days in the lower end of the labour market, it's such a squeeze and soul-destroying experience! There must be more to life!!

The irony is, if you asked people if they could have the choice of doing a job that they knew would definitely make society a better place and doing the job they do now, almost everyone I've ever asked that question has said they would prefer to make society a better place. That well of 'good-will' is a massive untapped resource - the price we pay for allowing the market to rig the flow of capital, risk, resources and freedom to suit the lifestyles of the few at the expense of the many.

Great article. For any strategy to be effective, it has to be supported at a number of levels of argument and evidence. A strategy presented to 'the public' without a 'why' will not be successful, especially in the current political climate. For me, one of the huge gaps in public discourse concerns the political 'rationale' underpinning policy - across all parties immigration policy is presented a simplistically as strategies for controlling and reducing 'numbers'. And this discourse is at least twenty years behind the reality of migration. For example, 'superdiversity' - the idea that migration is not waves of unskilled labour but that people coming to (and going from!) any country are from every 'demographic' in terms of social class, legal status, gender, political situation, age (see Vertovec etc) - is the reality of a globalised world. And these conditions of superdiversity are essential to any modern economy not only immediately but also in the longer term - even the OECD have idenified the necessity of addressing skill shortages in Europe by 2050, and the crucial role of migration to addressing these problems of skill shortage.

Furthermore, and this is where I disagree about control of 'unskilled' migrants suggested in the article, under these conditions and in these circumstances, it is probably impossible to unravel "who" should be allowed into any given country (on grounds such as potential economic productivity for example) and who should not - if only because even within families there will be economically active work age people and dependents, and even if any particular migrant is 'unskilled' their children (dependants), given the opportunity of a good education, will, like any other child, not be. It is these kids, and the children of people who are already settled in the UK that are the future. Further still, the political parties know all of this - it is no secret that Europe faces a massive skill shortage and that unless skill shortages are addressed, then economies are faced with the possiblity of collapse under the current economic models. The collective political discourse in the UK is discussing the problems of immigration when it should be addressing problems of education, training, and of course, human rights.

Making the reality known - that 'we' need migrants as much (more!) as 'they' need us, and that this is a long term reality of a globalised world - is I believe part of the development of effective strategies because in a climate where political parties are allowed to have the wrong debate about the wrong issues, more effective strategies for all of us will not emerge simply because our collective attention is focused on the wrong problem! It may not appear easy to make complex arguments in such a sound bite dominated, linear, simplified political environment (and I would admit that I am not that good at it!) but we have to try to explain not just the strategies which may emerge, but the 'why' behind those strategies. For me, that 'why' is both the present - human rights and equality now - and the future - jobs and wellbeing for all. They are inextricable.

The idea that reducing the number of migrant workers frees up jobs for the indigenous workforce is one of these things that intuitively sounds sensible but once you think about it for even a moment is clearly nonsensical. For it to be true it wuuld require the number of jobs to be fixed regardless of population. Small countires like Luxembourg and Iceland would have masses of unfilled vacancies while somewhere like the USA would have armies of unemployed people numbering hundreds of millions.

Even if we only had half the population we do and everyone in the country was born here from families who have been in the country since the stone age there is nothing that follows from that which leads to the conclusion that levels of unemployment would be any lower.