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