Migration, migrant workers and capitalism

Issue: 122

Jane Hardy

Consider these two scenarios. The first is in Ireland in December 2005 when 100,000 Irish, Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian workers demonstrated together against attempts by bosses to recruit migrant workers on worse pay and conditions than Irish workers. The second is in the UK in January 2009 with hundreds of workers taking industrial action under the slogan of “British jobs for British workers”. The former reflects the possibility of solidarity and a rejection of “divide and rule”. The latter is an alarming situation in which fearful workers turn on “foreigners” as the UK economy haemorrhages jobs and plunges into a deepening crisis.

Migration has always been high on the agenda of the ruling classes, particularly in the core capitalist economies, as they have sought to balance the need for migrant workers to fuel expansionary periods of capitalism against picking up the bill for reproducing and maintaining these workers. The large-scale movement of people has a long history.1 The most important early migrations occurred in Asia, particularly China, the Middle East and Africa. From the late 16th century levels of migration in Europe grew as a result of the region’s changing economic and military dynamics.2 Political conflicts in eastern, southern and central Europe saw major _displacements of ethnic groups across ever-changing boundaries, while mercantilist states and empires drew on flows of skilled labour.3 In the 17th and 18th centuries the European conquest and population of the Americas was intimately tied to the slave trade-the forcible and brutal movement of people, overwhelmingly from sub-Saharan Africa, across the Atlantic.

The expansion of capitalism often relied on naked violence. The forced subjugation and movement of people, and the use of indentured labour established coffee and tea plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and mines and plantations in Brazil.4 With the abolition of the slave trade in 1838 the mass migration of Asian labourers, known as the “coolie” system, allowed colonial economies to replace slave labour. Coolie labour was generally based on short-term contracts bound by penal sanctions, linked to debts incurred in transit and invariably to barbaric working conditions and levels of pay.5 One of the largest migrations of the 19th century was that of Indian workers, both indentured labourers and administrative workers, to far-flung parts of the British Empire. One estimate is that between 1834 and 1937 30 million people left India (24 million returned).6 Comparable to this were the waves of Chinese migration, temporary, seasonal and permanent, across South East Asia and the US, forming the backbone of a workforce that dug the earth in the gold rush and built the railroads.7

There were major transatlantic migrations from the mid-19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The uneven development of capitalism produced large numbers of impoverished and displaced agrarian workers in Europe, who were needed to fuel the explosive growth of capitalism in North and South America. Between 1870 and 1914 50 million people left Europe. Two thirds went to the United States, the rest to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil.8 This mass emigration amounted to one eighth of Europe’s population in 1900-and between 20 and 30 percent of the population of countries such as Britain, Italy, Spain and Portugal.9

With the crisis and retrenchment of world capitalism after the First World War, these flows came to a halt as racism was used to tighten immigration laws to the US.

However, after the Second World War the advanced capitalist economies, particularly those in Europe, required immigration and they actively recruited labour. Britain, France and the Netherlands drew workers from their former colonies, while other countries recruited their labour force from the south east periphery of Europe, Turkey and North Africa. West Germany signed agreements with Italy (1955 and 1965), Greece and Spain (1964), Morocco (1963), Portugal and Turkey (1964), Tunisia (1965), Yugoslavia (1968) and even Korea (1962). By 1973 migrant workers in France and Germany made up about 10 percent of the labour force.10

The onset of recession in 1973 marked the end of open movements of labour. By the 1980s draconian immigration laws were in place across Europe. One feature of the post Second World War migration, particularly in the past three decades, has been the huge and forced displacement of people from developing countries through poverty, war and persecution.11 The Iraq war, for example, has created a large number of refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that 4.2 million Iraqis have been forced out of their homes. About half have been displaced within Iraq and the rest have fled the country.

A reserve army of labour

Migrant workers play a distinct role in capitalism both as a “reserve army of labour” and as a means of raising the rate of exploitation. There is nothing new about the idea of a reserve army of labour. In 1845 Federick Engels wrote, “English manufacture must have, at all times save the brief periods of highest prosperity, an unemployed reserve army of labour, in order to produce the masses of goods required by the market in the liveliest months”.12

Advanced capitalist economies regularly poach workers with particular skills, such as nurses, teachers and social workers, from developing countries. In the UK the supply of migrant workers from outside the European Union (EU) is turned on and off like a tap to provide flexible, seasonal, low cost labour. Employers use special schemes in agriculture and the so-called “hospitality” sector to import workers on a temporary basis.

After eight former Communist countries13 joined the EU in 2004, bosses in existing EU states were able to cherry-pick workers from Central and Eastern Europe. One example that I came across involved a bus company from the Midlands hiring a hotel in Warsaw and putting leaflets around the city’s bus depot. Large numbers of drivers who turned up to the meeting were promised what appeared to be good wages (in comparison with Poland at least), and the following week 20 drivers moved to the UK. The company paid the minimum wage but the contract said that there were no set hours and the drivers would have to work as needed. This meant that some weeks they did not make the salary they had been promised and other weeks they could be called up in the middle of the night and worked 60 hours. When they complained, an English test was sprung on them and three drivers were sacked.14

Migrant workers are especially useful as part of the reserve army of labour because they can quickly be expelled. The US, Belgium and France expelled foreign workers during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nigeria expelled two million immigrant workers from other West African countries in the wake of the collapse of the oil market in the early 1980s.15 After the 1997 economic crisis, which began in South East Asia, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand stepped up border controls, enforcement and surveillance, and imposed fines for migration offences. South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia repatriated migrants, including those who were there legally.

The use of migrant workers also allows the receiver country to externalise the costs of renewing the labour force. The state uses migrant workers to fill gaps in the labour market but does not pay any of the costs of them or their families settling. For example, in the UK migrant workers from the new EU countries are denied benefits until they have worked there for 12 months. The new points system for immigrants (from outside to Europe) in the UK is a way of sifting workers who are highly skilled and ensuring that no one who arrives is going to be a “burden” on the state.

Migration to the richer countries has economic and social consequences for the poorer ones. In Moldova, for example, 26 percent of the population is employed outside of the country.16 On a global scale the unevenness of capitalism can set in motion a whole chain of migration, with ever more degrading treatment the lower you are on the ladder. The gap left by welders who left the Gdansk shipyard in Poland was filled by workers from India and North Korea, working up to 16 hours a day under the control and surveillance of the North Korean Communist Party.17

Increasing the rate of exploitation

Employers do not simply want to obtain additional labour. They also want to get workers who can be used under specific conditions to raise the rate of exploitation. In general these conditions “embody a form of control over the workforce that presupposes the powerlessness of the workers”.18 In some cases bosses will try to employ migrant workers even when indigenous workers are available because they assume that migrants’ status will make them easier to exploit.

Even when migrant workers are employed legally they face huge problems at work. The abuse of workers from Central and Eastern Europe legally in the UK over employment contracts and wages has been widely documented. Complaints include excessive working hours with inadequate breaks and no enhanced overtime. Recruitment and temporary labour agencies have been found to impose high charges for finding employment, lower payment than promised and the withholding of wages.19 Tied accommodation, where bosses provide housing, has resurfaced and many complaints from migrants have focused on housing that is overpriced, overcrowded and shoddy.20

The vast majority of migrant workers have been used to fill the worst and most badly paid jobs. The Ken Loach film It$7_$_s a Free World is a damning indictment of the exploitation of legal and illegal migrant workers in the UK. However, it focuses on “bad apple” employers on the fringes of the labour market, whereas in reality workers from Poland and other new EU members are central to British capitalism-and are indirectly or directly employed by some of the largest companies. Undoubtedly some employment agencies are run on a semi-criminal basis, but others are large transnational corporations themselves and could be regarded as traffickers with legal status.

The use of migrant workers is inextricably linked to the neoliberal agenda of increasing labour “flexibility” to ratchet up the rate of exploitation. This in turn is driven by increased competition between capitals. For instance, workers from the new EU countries are widely used in agriculture, food processing, distribution and supermarkets in East Anglia, and there is evidence of terrible working conditions and bullying, and of _gangmasters running some small towns. However, it is not simply that bosses from this region are particularly nasty; rather they are locked into a highly competitive market. Supermarkets, which control the food chain in the UK (to a greater extent than other countries), continually force their suppliers to drive down prices. Lorry drivers from the new EU countries in supermarket distribution centres are often on zero hours contracts, and Polish workers I interviewed in a fruit-packing factory were continually told to work faster to meet the demands of supermarkets.

Migrant workers, wages and working conditions

What are the relationships between migrant workers and wider trends in wages and conditions? In the UK a plethora of bewildering econometric studies have reached contradictory conclusions and have been used to justify different positions within the ruling class.21 One section of the ruling class does not benefit from migrant workers and therefore does not want to bear the costs, while another section has been keen to defend the benefits of immigration.

This split is evident in two reports by the UK government. The first, a Home Office report, citing the support of the Institute of Directors and British Chambers of Commerce, puts a strong case against linking immigration to depressed wages or increased unemployment.22 Similarly, in a major speech on immigration in December 2007, home secretary Jacqui Smith spoke of the “purity of the macroeconomic case for migration”. The then immigration minister Liam Byrne argued that “there are obviously enormous benefits of immigration… There is a big positive impact on the economy which is worth £6 billion”.23

They have been keen to promote the views of economists who share this view such as David Blanchflower. In a speech to the Bank of England he concluded, “The empirical literature from around the world suggests little or no evidence that immigrants have had a major impact on native labour markets outcomes such as wages and unemployment. Recent work by a number of other authors for the UK is also consistent with this view”.24

A second report, this time from the House of Lords, takes a more sceptical view, unconvinced that the economic impact of immigration justifies the additional costs.25 Another study tells yet another story, _concluding that immigration has a positive effect on the wages of higher paid workers but lowers the wages for those in lower paid jobs.26

While there is pressure on the wages of the worst paid workers, it is not the case that migrant workers are responsible for this. The drive for “flexibility” and lower wages goes back much further than the arrival of workers from Central and Eastern Europe in 2004. Privatisation, outsourcing and subcontracting have intensified competition over the past two decades in industries such as cleaning and other badly paid service sector jobs as well as construction.

As Stobart points out, it is incorrect to talk about migration having a homogenous impact on wages and working conditions; rather the effects vary between and within sectors.27 This will depend on the intensity of competition between capitals, the need for bosses to balance investing in skills against driving down wages and the ability of workers to resist across sectors and in individual workplaces.

Undoubtedly some employers in individual factories and workplaces have sought to employ migrant workers on poorer pay and conditions of service, in the Irish ferries dispute for example.28 Forces are at work to try to drive down wages across Europe.29 This was clearly illustrated by the disputes in construction in the UK in January 2009 when subcontractors brought in workers from Italy and Spain. The Posted Worker Directive, introduced in 1996, means that workers “posted” temporarily in another country by employers should get the guaranteed minimum provisions laid down by law or collective agreement in the host country. The reality is that bosses only need to pay the minimum, and even if they do not, migrant workers lack knowledge of their entitlements (particularly if they are housed on “floating accommodation”). It is unlikely that construction workers from another country, who may not speak English, are going to take their boss to a British industrial tribunal.

Under these conditions it is easy to see how employers could seek to employ workers on worse pay and conditions. But whether they succeed is a political question. It is worth recounting the landmark dispute in Sweden when Latvian workers were brought in to refurbish a school by the subcontractor of Alfa Laval on €9 an hour, rather than the nationally agreed €15 Euros.30 The Swedish Byggnads union picketed the site and drew _accusations of xenophobia from bosses and the Latvian government. The response of the Swedish union was not to demand “Swedish jobs for Swedish workers”, but to place a full statement in the leading Latvian newspaper inviting workers coming to Sweden to join the trade union.31 Therefore, although the existence of migrant workers offers the possibility of divide and rule, bosses have not always been successful in their unbridled exploitation of migrant workers.

The state and migration

Contrary to much rhetoric about globalisation, states have played a central and active role in managing outward and inward flows of labour across their boundaries. In the 19th century, for example, the active export of Europe’s rural poor was facilitated by states that lifted restrictions on emigration, while state bodies, trade unions, philanthropic and colonisation societies made financial assistance available.32

The rise of the capitalist state saw the establishment of borders and categories of citizenship that demarcated immigrants as a separate group. Before the 19th century it was towns and guilds, not national governments, that determined whether “foreigners” could work.33 Modern nationalism divided some groups and merged others. Saxons and Bavarians, who had migrated to France, the Netherlands and eastern Europe with their regional identities, suddenly became “Germans”. National identity was often loosely defined because village, regional and religious identities could be stronger than national ones.34 Immigrants to the United States before the First World War often defined themselves as Italian or Polish only once they were in the US. “International migration” in Africa now flows between areas that have long been connected by trade and cultural ties but have been divided by arbitrary boundaries imposed by European empires.35

By the First World War most modern states sought to control movements across their borders. Passports were the documentary expression of this and they were accompanied by a huge expansion of the immigration bureaucracy to police the system.36 Although some kind of passport or travel document had been around for a long time, the modern passport was introduced in the UK and other European countries in 1914, for military reasons and in an effort to hold on to skilled workers.37 By the 1920s most governments had taken steps to control the movement of people. Gubbay writes:

Between them, the states…carve the populations of the world, each person in principle being the subject of a single state, possessing the privilege of citizenship and the right to freedom of movement within its territory, in particular in order to sell his or her labour power within the corresponding labour market… The legitimate function of citizenship, for which its possessor should feel gratitude and pride, depends in part upon the disprivileging of non-citizens and indeed the further buttress of finely graded rights conferred on non-citizens.38

Border enforcement is a mechanism facilitating the extraction of cheap labour by assigning criminal status to a segment of the working class-illegal immigrants. However, as Nick Clark points out, we have to take care not to see migrants in the way that bosses do, as simply units of production:

It is [migrant workers’] humanity that causes authorities (and employers) problems. They don’t only migrate to work. The categories-refugee, economic migrant, tourist, family member, business visitor, student-stubbornly merge one into another, and people impose their own wishes on the system. All of them, apart from the very rich, need some means of material support, but this is not necessarily the only reason why they move, or stay. When I asked a (small) sample of people who had settled, none of them planned to, but most of them did because they fell in love.39

Capitalist states must constantly intervene to recast the relationship between the state and labour in the interests of capital accumulation. War causes massive dislocations of people, but it is the combined and uneven nature of capitalism that produces a constant tendency towards labour mobility, with pull factors in expanding parts of the system and push factors where the landscape and workplaces of the system have been decimated. Capitalists need the constant movement of workers but also a degree of stability and embedded skills to compete with other capitalists. Governments have often been preoccupied with preventing emigration and the loss of skilled workers. David Harvey quotes Karl Marx’s example of the cotton famine in Lancashire in 1860s when management acted secretly with the government to hinder emigration, “partly to retain in readiness the capital invested in the blood and flesh of the labourers”.40

However, tensions between different capitalists, with different labour market needs, creates difficulties for states as they attempt to manage migration. This is well illustrated by the debates over Mexican migration to the US. As of July 2007 1,404 pieces of legislation related to immigration had been introduced by 50 states.41 There were 170 pieces of legislation in 2007 alone, tightening up on illegal migrants enforced by 11,000 border guards with sophisticated surveillance equipment. But Mexican migrant workers are central to US capitalism. The number of migrant Mexican workers in the US has doubled since 1990-growing by 2.9 million. In 1990 migrant workers were concentrated in California and Texas, but by 2009 they were much more widely dispersed throughout the whole of the US.42

The American Health Care Association, the American Hotel and Motel Association, and the National Association of House Builders lobbied the Senate for a relaxation on migration. They represented the bosses of immobile sections of capitalist production such as restaurants, hotels, construction sites, hospitals and orchards, which depended on a constant supply of migrant workers. In June 2007 legislation introduced to relax migration with easier regularisation and more visas was defeated. However, the voting was not along Republican/Democrat lines but reflected the needs of different sectors of capital. Similarly in the UK the British Hospitality Association and National Farmers Union (an employers’ association) have lobbied the government for access to more temporary foreign workers, with the effect that the government increased the quota by 5,000 in 2009.43

Organising migrant workers

In some accounts migrant workers are treated as passive victims of capital and/or as unorganisable because of the sectors they work in. However, migrant workers have often been at the forefront of strikes, union organisation and political activity, as Camille Guerin-Gonzalez and Carl Strikwerda document in their book The Politics of Immigrant Workers.44 Many rank and file immigrant leaders brought with them a tradition of union activism or left wing political ties. There is no predisposition for some nationalities to be more active in politics and unions than others. For example, while Italians were often seen as a conservative influence in the US, in Argentina and Brazil they supplied a disproportionate number of leaders of labour movements.45 The high rate of union organisation among Turkish and Italian workers from the 1950s onwards in the former West Germany and their disorganisation in Switzerland was due to the relative strength of their unions, not entrenched national characteristics.

However, solidarity between workers is not automatic. In the Chicago meat packing yards, vividly portrayed by Upton Sinclair in his novel The Jungle,46 the workforce comprised ethnically and racially diverse communities. Historian James Barrett found that “the existence of separate racial and ethnic continuities could lead to either unity or fragmentation, depending on the role played by important community leaders or institutions”.47

The disputes in the UK construction industry and in oil refineries in January 2009, under the slogan of “British Jobs For British Workers”, were a salutary lesson in the importance of uniting indigenous and migrant workers, and of the role of trade unions and socialists.

Some academics have talked about a segmented labour force in which migrant workers form a separate group, allowing them to be used to divide and rule. However, if we take the most recent wave of migrant workers from the new EU countries into the UK, it is not the case that they constitute a segmented and hermetically sealed part of the labour market. While it is true that some sectors are dominated by these migrant workers, for instance in agriculture and food processing, they are also employed alongside British workers as bus drivers, on building sites and in distribution centres.

Organising migrant workers in the US

The American working class has always consisted overwhelmingly of immigrants and their children. In her book Organising Immigrants Ruth Milkman looks at how migrant workers have been organised since their arrival in the United States in the 19th century.48 Many craft unions of northern and western European origins were openly hostile to recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who employers freely exploited as strikebreakers and who dominated the ranks of the unemployed. Although in the 1880s and 1890s the American Federation of Labour (AFL) made efforts to incorporate these new immigrants, by the turn of the century most union leaders came to see them as unorganisable and supported restrictions on new immigration.49 Racism, particularly apparent towards black and non-European workers such as those from China, pervaded even the most progressive unions.50 New immigrants did organise themselves in some AFL affiliates, the most lasting results of which were in clothing and coal mining. Immigrant workers remained largely unorganised until the mass industrial union drive of the 1930s, which welcomed them into unions on a large scale, along with the African American working class. Historians documented the way immigrants were often more enthusiastic, easier to organise and quicker to sign up than indigenous workers:

In the case of Slavic immigrants in meatpacking and steel and for the Jewish garment workers-as for English and German immigrants half a century earlier-receptivity to unionisation efforts was often linked to prior experiences with strikes and labour organisation in Europe.51

The 1965 amendments to the immigration laws set the stage for a massive influx of newcomers that would greatly enlarge the Latino community. Recruitment of migrant workers was central to rebuilding the labour movement and in the 1990s a series of dramatic successes demonstrated the potential for bringing foreign born workers into the unions. In 1995 a new progressive leadership won the contested elections of the AFL-CIO union federation, and some of its affiliates began pouring resources into organising on a scale not seen for decades. Immigrant workers were a crucial focus, especially in California.52

The Justice for Janitors campaign was a major success story of immigrant organisation. This was part of a top-down strategy to rebuild the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) but involved rank and file immigrant workers. It was defined by one of the SEIU organisers as “a war against the employers [the cleaning contractors] and the building owners, waged on all fronts without leaving any stone unturned”.53

The militant demonstrations, violent response by the police and publicity stunts were vividly portrayed by Ken Loach in his film Bread and Roses. Immigrant workers were often willing to take risks in organising. One organiser, discussing the role of Salvadorians in the Justice for Janitors dispute, explained, “There, if you were in a union, they killed you…here you lose a job at $4.25 an hour”.54

There were other major disputes organised by rank and file workers themselves. In 1990 there was a spontaneous strike at the American Racing Equipment Company by first generation Latino immigrants, who won higher wages, health insurance and union recognition.55 In 1992, after months of preparation, thousands of Mexican immigrant construction workers achieved a stunning victory for higher pay after a five-month stoppage that shut down housing construction from North Angeles to the Mexican border.56

The lessons of these disputes were that immigrant workers could be recruited or take action themselves and win, even in the most difficult circumstances. The industries in which they organised had little or no union membership, or in the case of construction had faced a sustained attack by employers. The workers themselves, who often spoke little English, won in the face of intimidation, violence and the possibility of deportation.

In 2006 there were massive May Day demonstrations in every large city in the US (and many smaller ones) involving millions of migrant workers to protest against government legislation to tighten controls on immigration and criminalise undocumented workers, chanting slogans such as “Queremos Justicia, Queremos Amnista” (“We Want Justice And Amnesty”).

Organising migrant workers in the UK

Post-war British capitalism was heavily dependent on migrant workers from the West Indies, India and Pakistan to provide labour for the worst paid jobs in the public sector and textile industry. In this journal Hassan Mahamdallie documented the way in which Asian migrant workers moved into confrontation with employers from the mid-1960s, often having to battle with racist union officials as well as bosses.57 The strike by Asian workers at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974 became political when it moved from a dispute about wages to one over racism and democracy in the unions. The strikers fought against open and ugly racism on the part of both white union members and their leaders. The challenge to the trade unions of fighting for immigrant workers reached its height at Grunwick’s two years later, in 1976, when mainly Asian women workers struck against appalling pay and _conditions. There was a huge gap between the tepid support of the TUC and the massive support from rank and file trade unionists: “Grunwick’s was the most important dispute in the history of the British labour movement concerning the ghost of black and brown workers not being prepared to join unions and under-cutting the wages of white workers”.58

Twenty years later, in 2005, another group, mainly second generation British Asian women, struck against the union-busting Gate Gourmet at Heathrow Airport. While baggage handlers came out on unofficial strike in sympathy, as with disputes involving non-migrant workers, the union leadership were quick to stitch up a deal, rather than building on the solidarity that existed in the union movement.

The position of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has not always been one of solidarity-even at a rhetorical level. In the 30 years following the Second World War the TUC and a number of affiliate unions were often openly hostile to immigrant and migrant workers and tried to exclude them from certain sectors. At workplace level there were very different responses ranging from refusing membership to black workers in some skilled unions to active recruitment drives with leaflets in a range of languages in other unions.59

From May 2004 workers from the new EU countries, two thirds of them Polish,60 seeking work in the UK constituted its largest single _in-migration.61 This new wave of migrants was younger and more feminised than previous ones, with 82 percent aged between 18 and 34 and women comprising 43 percent.62 The TUC and its affiliated unions responded positively, partly as a result of policies fought for by socialists in the movement, through the history of self-organisation of black workers, and partly as a result of a small section of the TUC having worked with Portuguese migrant workers. The response of the union bureaucracy was also driven by a recognition that between half a million and one million new workers were a fundamental change to the labour market-and not to organise these workers would weaken the movement as a whole.

The recruitment of Polish workers posed new challenges for unions. Large numbers were concentrated in the private sector and in agency employment where unions have less power and influence. Language barriers, a lack of bank accounts, aggressive and vicious employers, and stretched union finances added to the problems. Nevertheless, British unions at a grassroots level have showed themselves to be imaginative in deploying a new range of tactics. These included the secondment of a Solidarity union organiser from Poland to the north west TUC, using the Union Learning Fund63 to recruit workplace representatives to provide English classes, and working with law centres, churches and community groups to organise “know your rights” events. In East Anglia the GMB union organised a fishing trip to build links between Polish and British workers. There had been antipathy to Polish workers who ate the fish they caught rather than throwing them back according to the apparent protocol of British fishing.64

Where Polish workers have been in organised workplaces they have been on strike alongside British workers. In December 2005 a strike took place at the Iceland distribution depot in Enfield, North London, over pay and management bullying. Some of the placards on the picket line read “Strajk Oficjalny” (“Official Strike”), reflecting the large number of Polish workers involved.65 British and Polish TGWU66 members were involved in a dispute over pay and pensions with First Bus in the Midlands.67 Polish agency workers were bussed in to attempt to break a Post Office dispute over privatisation and pay in 2007. However, at Watford pickets climbed onto the bus, explained the dispute, and the Polish workers voted not to go into work.

A report by Bridget Anderson and others found that, despite claims by some that Polish migrant workers were suspicious of and hostile to unions, low membership did not represent antipathy to trade unions.68 A clear majority were interested in joining and, according to the report, even on the most pessimistic assumptions, the interest in trade union membership was significantly greater than actual membership. Of the workers who were not interested in joining, half gave practical reasons such as cost, lack of information and brevity of stay. Less than 10 percent gave ideological arguments or bad experiences of unions as reasons for not joining. The reasons why workers were interested in joining a union were varied, and by no means all associated with individual protection, services or “insurance”. The need for a “sword of justice” and a view of collectivism at work also motivated many. The four Polish union representatives I interviewed in one workplace all gave a desire to help others as a reason for being involved.

Debates over organising migrant workers

Organising migrant workers has provoked a number of debates for socialists, particularly around the questions of “community unionism” and separate organising. The idea of community unionism is most developed in the US, and often focused around worker centres.69 These centres grew up because of the poor record of some sections of the union movement in organising migrant workers and addressing their problems at work, as well as wider concerns such as regularisation and housing. Worker centres combine servicing, legal help and organising, both for individuals and through collective campaigns. By May 2005 there were 137 worker centres in the US, 122 of them immigrant worker centres.70 However, these centres have often relied on broad campaigns rather than putting workplace organisation at the centre of their politics. Fine comments, “Over the course of conducting the study, I was struck by how little workers’ centres utilised the potential economic power of low wage immigrant workers themselves”.71

Some worker centres have moved from union inspired radical pressure groups to operating as businesses-what is sometimes fashionably referred to as social entrepreneurship. The East Los Angeles Community Union, for example, was initiated by the United Auto Workers in the mid-1960s and campaigned successfully to get more public housing built. However, since then it has morphed into being a property developer and running for-profit businesses.72

There is no real equivalent of worker centres in the UK, although the “Campaign for a Living Wage” carries some of the same politics. The East London Community Organisation (Telco) managed to persuade some employers to pay the “living wage” of £7.20 (as opposed to the minimum wage). This was followed by a campaign by the TGWU union, which recruited about 1,500 cleaners and got agreements with leading contractors in Canary Wharf.73 Winning improvements in the pay and working conditions of one of the most badly treated and poorly paid groups of workers was a significant achievement. Further, the campaign brought anti-racist ideas into the _mainstream of the union movement. There are, however, some problems with the notion of community organising when it believes that a “wide diversity of actors with a multiplicity of interests” can operate in the place of workers’ self-organisation.74 The issue of class is sidelined as “workers’ issues have been recast as community-wide concerns and class interests read through the lens of community, immigration, and race and religion”.75 Communities are very important in supporting strikes; they were key to the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Often migrant workers have their own networks, communities and traditions. However, it is unity on the basis of class-bringing together men and women, migrant and indigenous workers-that has the power to win disputes in the workplace. Solidarity strikes from other workers at Heathrow and beyond are the sort of action that could have won the dispute for the Gate Gourmet workers in 2006, for example.

There is no single, principled position over community organising. After all in Argentina during the crisis of 2001 and in recent years in Venezuela it has been about occupying factories and taking over workplaces. It is a question of tactics. If community unionism means a broad alliance of classes that substitutes for the independent organisation of workers, or marginalises them, then it may be a problem. The real test is what happens when community unionising fails to win over or embarrass intransigent employers. In these circumstances the question must be one of focusing on groups of workers taking industrial action that can win.

The second debate focuses on the issue of separate branches for migrant workers, which some suggest is divisive. There is only one notable example in the UK-the GMB’s Southampton Polish-speaking holding branch. The bottom line is that many Polish workers (and those from other new EU countries) do not speak English and have no access to language classes. The Southampton branch was set up in response to the demands of the Polish community, and the first meeting in August 2006 saw over 100 people crammed into a small pub room.76 By 2008 it had grown from 50 to 500 members and produced a layer of Polish activists and full-time organisers.77 This has acted as a catalyst for the recruitment and organising of other workplaces. In one case management at a workplace that employed a high number of workers from the new EU countries would not listen to grievances on health and safety, so 20 workers joined the union and 55 put their name to the grievances. When they tried to form a workplace union the management tried to set up a staff association, handed out leaflets as to why a union was not needed and suddenly produced the health and safety equipment that the workers had been asking for. According to the GMB organiser, “We went in [to the other factory] and recruited 40 people in one day-Latvians, Lithuanians, Russians as well as Poles. The key to recruiting these workers was a Latvian woman. Had she not been there we would not have been so successful”.78

There are not many precedents for this, but it is worth noting that at the beginning of the 20th century the Socialist Party of America79 created seven foreign language federations that successfully mobilised recent migrants. They were among the most radical sections of the party and were expelled with others in 1919 after the Russian Revolution for arguing that a revolution was possible in America. Separate trade union branches are not a long-term solution but may be a mechanism for organising workers and workplace activity as a step towards unity between British and Polish workers.

The crisis and migration

In the current crisis migrant workers are increasingly bearing the brunt of unemployment and facing deportation. The Czech government have given workers who have been laid off €500 and a ticket home. This is relatively altruistic in comparison with workers who have been summarily deported from countries such as Italy. Russia has ten million migrant workers, a disproportionate number of whom are facing increasing poverty and persecution, particularly as the construction industry goes into deep decline. One Moscow-based human rights group reported that in the past 12 months ten people had been killed in racist murders. There are other ramifications of the crisis for poorer and developing countries as remittances (the money sent home by migrant workers) have shown a sharp decline. These are often a significant part of the GDP of countries in South East Asia and a lifeline for individual families.80

In the UK, as the value of the pound fell spectacularly against other currencies (including the Polish zloty) from mid-2008, there were reports in the press of a mass exodus of Poles. With rising unemployment, and employment agency workers the first to be laid off, the UK looks less attractive for Polish workers. However, there are no figures for the impact on migration-only guesswork based on anecdotes. The current crisis is global and the only question is about the depth and precise form it will take in different economies. The Polish economy has been hailed as a great success story with high average rates of growth. Nevertheless in 2004 (on the eve of joining the EU) unemployment was 20 percent and by 2008 (after four years of outward migration) it was still nearly the highest in Europe. It is unlikely that the Polish labour market has much to offer young people. People trying to enter the UK from outside the EU will face the increasingly draconian implementation of the new points system, as these workers are now considered surplus to requirements.


Capitalism is a system based on divide and rule, and successive governments in Britain have played the race card or resorted to xenophobia to try to set workers against one another. The British and US economic bubbles have burst spectacularly, both economies are spiralling into crisis and jobs are haemorrhaging, with migrant workers bearing the brunt of unemployment. Workers are rightly fearful but the danger is that migrant workers will be used as scapegoats. It is crucial for socialists to argue in their workplaces and unions that blame does not lie with migrant workers. The imposition of neoliberal regulations across Europe has created cut-throat competition, which is compounded by a system with anarchy at its heart. History shows that migrant and indigenous workers can fight alongside each other for a better world and can win. We need to develop a socialist current among migrant workers just as we need to build an international perspective among British workers.


1: See Haywood, 2008; Emmer, 1993; Fagan, 1990.

2: Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton, 1999.

3: Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton, 1999.

4: Sassen, 1988.

5: See Kale, 1998; Northrup, 1995.

6: Nayyar, 2006, citing Tinker, 1974.

7: Nayyar, 2006, citing Lewis, 1977.

8: Nayyar, 2006, citing Lewis, 1977.

9: Stalker, 1994.

10: Harris, 1995.

11: Marfleet, 1998; Marfleet, 2005.

12: Engels, 1962.

13: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

14: Some of the empirical material for this article was gathered as part of a project, “Cross Border Trade Union Collaboration and Polish Migrant Workers”. This was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council between February 2007 and April 2008 with Ian Fitzgerald.

15: Strikwerda and Guerin-Gonzales, 1993.

16: Migrant Remittances Newsletter, http://migrantremittances.typepad.com/

17: “Slaves From North Korea Work In Gdansk Shipyards”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 24 March 2006.

18: Sassen, 1988, p39.

19: Fitzgerald, 2007; Hardy and Clark, 2007; Anderson, Ruhs, Rogaly and Spencer, 2006.

20: Jordan and Düvell, 2002.

21: See Rowthorn, 2008, for a survey of the literature.

22: Home Office, 2007.

23: House of Lords, 2008, p22.

24: Blanchflower, Saleheen and Shadforth, 2007.

25: House of Lords, 2008.

26: Dustmann, Frattini and Preston, 2007.

27: Stobart, 2008.

28: “Irish Ferries Dispute Resolved After Bitter Stand-off”, EIROnline, 21 December 2005.

29: Cremers, Dolvik and Bosch, 2007.

30: Woolfson and Sommers, 2006.

31: Woolfson and Sommers, 2006.

32: Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, Perraton, 1999.

33: Strikwerda and Guerin-Gonzales, 1993.

34: Strikwerda and Guerin-Gonzales, 1993.

35: Strikwerda and Guerin-Gonzales, 1993.

36: Caplan and Torbey, 2001.

37: Caplan and Torbey, 2001.

38: Gubbay, 1999, p44.

39: Correspondence with Nick Clark.

40: See Marx, 1959, p89.

41: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2007.

42: American Immigration Law Foundation, 2002.

43: http://tinyurl.com/fruitjobs

44: Guerin-Gonzalez and Strikwerda, 1993.

45: Strikwerda and Guerin-Gonzalez, 1993.

46: Sinclair, 2006.

47: Barrett, 1987, cited by Strikwerda and Guerin-Gonzalez, 1993.

48: Milkman, 2000 and 2006.

49: Milkman, 2000 and 2006.

50: Mink, 1986, cited by Milkman, 2000.

51: Barrett, 1987, cited by Milkman, 2000, p4.

52: Milkman, 2000 and 2006.

53: Milkman, 2000 and 2006.

54: Waldinger and others, 1998, p117, cited by Milkman, 2000.

55: Zabin, 2000.

56: Milkman and Wong, 2000.

57: Mahamdallie, 2007.

58: Mahamdallie, 2007.

59: Castle and Kovack, 1973.

60: Border and Immigration Agency, 2007.

61: Salt and Millar, 2006.

62: Border and Immigration Agency, 2007.

63: The Union Learning Fund was set up by the government in 1998 to promote activity by unions in support of the government’s objective of creating a “learning society”. The role of the Union Learning Representative is given recognised status similar to that of union health and safety representatives. See www.unionlearningfund.org.uk

64: Fitzgerald and Hardy, 2007.

65: “Chilling Anti-strike Tactics At Iceland”, Socialist Worker, 16 December 2006.

66: Now part of the Unite union.

67: “Bus Drivers: ‘Bosses Treat Us All The Same-Badly”, Socialist Worker, 29 October 2005.

68: Anderson, Clark and Parutis, 2006.

69: Fine, 2006.

70: Fine, 2006.

71: Fine, 2006, p257.

72: Pratt Center for Community Development, http://prattcenter.net/cdc-telcau.php

73: Wills, 2008.

74: Wills, 2008, p306.

75: Wills, 2008, p309.

76: Fitzgerald and Hardy, 2007.

77: Fitzgerald and Hardy, 2007.

78: Interview with author.

79: The party was formed in 1901 and well entrenched in the labour movement.

80: “Countries Struggle With Rising Numbers Of Unemployed Migrant Workers”, 10 February 2009. Available on www.findingdulcinea.com


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