Exposing the migration myths

Issue: 147

Lee Humber

Katy Long, The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality (Thistle Publishing, 2015), £4.32

There is a lot of confusion regarding the extent and nature of migration into the UK. For example, a recent Press Association survey showed the public perception of numbers does not match the reality with more than half of people asked wrongly believing the total percentage of foreign-born residents in the UK to be 20 percent or higher. Around 11 percent thought it was 40 percent or higher. The actual figure is around 12 percent. The proportion of migrants who are asylum seekers is less than 1 percent, though polls show the public believe the figure to be much higher at 24 percent. This confusion results from how political parties of all colours consistently and shamelessly replace fact with racist propaganda for short-term political gain. David Cameron pledged to slash net migration to the tens of thousands before the general election; Nick Clegg attacked “benefits cheats”, arguing “there will be no coming to Britain and claiming out-of-work benefits on day one”. Shamefully, Ed Miliband apologised for Labour’s “soft” record on immigration policy, saying that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair should not have allowed uncontrolled immigration from new EU states in 2004. In fact, as Katy Long points out in The Huddled Masses, the last Blair government was the most effective one in modern times at reducing asylum seeker numbers.

Part of an anti-racist project is to address this confusion by exposing the lies and providing a facts-based truth. Long’s book helps us do this. It is a short, accessible and useful resource, discussing many of the key issues concerning immigration and more generally providing excellent data with which to undermine racist interpretations of immigration. Though primarily focused on the UK, the book provides valuable insights into general worldwide trends and issues. This review discusses some specific topics covered in the book, chiefly the idea that immigration acts as a downward pressure on wages and the argument that immigrants are “benefits tourists”. The review will finish with a brief discussion of some of the ways in which a revolutionary socialist view of immigration differs from the one offered in the book.

The idea that migrant labour necessarily lowers wage rates and impacts negatively on the working conditions of indigenous labour is deeply rooted in UK political culture. However, contemporary statistical evidence does not support this view. The effect of immigration on wage rates is marginal, and research is ambivalent about whether the effect is negative or positive. According to a February 2014 report from the Migration Advisory Committee the 2.1 million increase in the numbers of migrants between 1995 and 2010 meant wages increased—or decreased—by a maximum of £1.15 per day averaged across the whole workforce. It is virtually impossible to calculate exactly the effect on wages of immigration. Researchers can’t be sure of the trend, but they can be sure that the effect is marginal and to do with much broader labour concerns than simply the presence of migrant labour.

There is some evidence to suggest that wage rates and working conditions of the lowest-earning 10 percent of the population may be adversely affected by migrant labour (cited by Long). But as Long shows, this is not caused by migrants but is to do with how employers in low-wage sectors behave. Unionisation in the low-wage sector is typically weaker than in semi-skilled and skilled sectors, and there are fewer established collective agreements. For example, the rush to outsourcing and privatisation in the care sector over the last ten and more years has resulted in attacks on unions and collective agreements (see www.thisismoney.co.uk).

This enables and supports a second tendency for capital in this sector—to break the law. Many employers in this sector do not pay minimum wage rates and often ignore health and safety legislation governing numbers of hours worked and working conditions. So lower wages in the relatively unskilled, low-paid sector are low because capital takes advantage of often poorly organised workers to enforce low wage rates and poor working conditions, and to act illegally by ignoring labour legislation. Migrant labour is pulled into this low-pay sector for want of other opportunities—it doesn’t create it in the first place. Employers take advantage of the vulnerable position of migrant labour to divide and weaken workers, and take advantage of the low labour costs that ensue.

As Long shows, both of the above ideas are broadly contextualised by the “lump of labour” argument—the idea that there are a limited number of jobs over time and that migrants take the jobs which would otherwise be available to indigenous workers. Supported by a range of data drawn from various sources (for example, the Oxford Migration Observatory) Long establishes beyond doubt that this concept is without foundation. Job markets are dynamic and change rapidly and substantially, growing or shrinking in one sector one week and another the next. Migrant workers are pulled into—and potentially thrown out of—these expanding and contracting sectors according to general labour demand. They don’t make or depress that demand; they respond to it.

Also migrant workers are themselves consumers, potentially contributing to and creating increased levels of demand leading to jobs growth. Specifically discussing what non-UK nationals receive in state benefits compared to what they contribute otherwise the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) argues, “the relative balance between what they cost and what they contribute is firmly weighted towards a very substantial contribution”. This brings us to a discussion of what has been described as “benefits tourism”, the ridiculous idea that people leave their families and their countries in Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere, and travel hundreds and thousands of miles to take advantage of the overly generous British state. As NIESR point out, “There is no quantitative evidence that suggests ‘benefit tourism’ is a meaningful phenomenon, nor that the availability of benefits is a significant ‘pull factor’.” Long supports this view and shows conclusively that the idea is a lie generated by political parties, their allies and masters, not supported by statistical evidence. The UK is the only EU country where fewer EU migrants claim benefits than nationals—1 percent of EU migrants compared with 4 percent of UK nationals. Non-UK nationals are 60 percent less likely to be in receipt of benefits than UK nationals. In 2013 an EU report found that in the UK migrants from the EU were 4 percent of the population and that of these only 1.2 percent were “non-active” (a category which includes pensioners, homemakers and students alongside job seekers). It is interesting to note that the student population accounts for 37 percent of all migration into the UK, actively encouraged here by universities thirsty for higher overseas student fees and a potentially skilled workforce for UK employers.

How the migration debate is driven by short-term political goals, which potentially undermine longer-term economic needs, is illustrated by the student issue. The closure of the Post-Study Work Scheme for students, which encouraged and supported students to stay on in the UK to work and study further, may cost British capital dearly in the loss of skilled potential employees. While graduates can still stay if they secure skilled employment, this is considerably more difficult both in theory and in practice. Research suggests that as a result of the closure of the scheme, driven by political ideologies and in search of short-term electoral gain, it has become much more difficult for universities to retain postgraduates—and the inflated fees they bring—and as a consequence the UK has become a significantly less attractive destination.

Immigration—and the political debate around the issue—is an ongoing headache for mainstream parties. As York University’s England’s Immigrants Database beautifully shows (www.englandsimmigrants.com), the British ruling class, whether capitalist or feudal, has always benefited, economically and culturally, from the rich diversity of skills provided by migrant labour. As Long and others convincingly show, that continues to be the case today.

Most recently, migration figures from the Office for National Statistics show a net long-term inflow into the UK of 298,000. When this figure was announced in February security and immigration minister James Brokenshire argued to further “crack down on the abuse of EU free movement and continue our reforms to make our welfare system fairer and less open to abuse. We have scrapped housing benefit for EU jobseekers, have limited benefits claims for EU migrants with no prospect of a job”. As shown above, it is simply not the case that migrants abuse the benefits system. Cameron was “very disappointed” with the migration figures. But, as Migrants’ Rights Network director Don Flynn points out, “The latest migration figures reflect Britain’s growing economy… What these numbers show is that Britain is more than ever an outward-facing, globalised country with a diverse and hard-working population from overseas.” The fact that more migrants have come to the UK over the past few years is a sign of a success story—in purely capitalist terms—of creating more jobs. At an economic level it’s a success, but because of the demands of the racist discourse political parties have established around the issue of immigration, this “success” is turned into political failure. In this failure lie the roots of UKIP.

Long’s book is a valuable resource for anti-racists and I would urge people to buy it. However, revolutionary socialists would take issue with the author with regard to her discussion of the need for “fair” immigration policies which seek to balance the interests of an indigenous citizenry with those of migrant labour. As readers of this and other SWP publications will know, the SWP is against all ­immigration controls. A reason for this draws on our analysis of the state. As Marx and Engels argued in the Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Partly on account of this it is not possible for a bourgeois state—nor, more importantly, in the state’s class interests—to be fair.

Establishing “fair” migration policy—weighing citizenship rights with rights of people to move to earn a living and address global inequalities—is an abstract aim in a world that is in practice deeply unfair, governed by a class who preside over a historical process of deepening inequality. To call for “fair” immigration policy is to misunderstand the state by positioning it as an arbiter of fairness when in fact it’s a means by which the bourgeoisie, left unopposed, impose unfairness, inequality and division on the rest of us in order to buttress and extend their rule and wealth.

Our class interests are cross-border. National borders promote and defend the ability of a nation’s bourgeoisie to exploit that nation’s stock of labour. In part, they have historically done this by seeking to impose excluding policy and ideologies with which to control and depress the labour costs of migrant labour. British capital doesn’t actually want to keep migrants out. It wants to use its labour as cheaply as possible while using racism to weaken workers’ struggle against exploitation and depress wage costs generally. The interests of indigenous and migrant workers are exactly the same—solidarity in opposition to the bosses to end exploitation. With this tiny codicil, The Huddled Masses is an asset.