Refugees crossing the Channel are demonised and criminalised, but the system wants migrant workers

Is the ruling class split by the issue of immigration? One part, represented by the Tory party, declares that migration is so dangerous that the state must bring numbers down fast. Earlier this month, prime minister Rishi Sunak stood behind a podium emblazed with the words, “Stop the Boats” to announce the ­harshest crackdown yet on “illegal migrants”. He and his ministers talk of the relatively small numbers of refugees crossing the Channel as an “invasion”.

Another part, including many of Britain’s top bosses, think the main problem with immigration is that there isn’t enough of it. Their CBI organisation demands immigration controls be relaxed to allow more workers to come here to fill their many empty posts.

This apparent contradiction reflects two of capitalism’s core needs. One is a ready supply of labour from which they make profits. The other is dividing workers so as to weaken their ability to resist. It’s tempting to think these two needs pull in different directions, meaning our rulers are irrevocably at loggerheads over the issue.

Instead, what we see is an interaction between the two—more racism and, under specific conditions, more immigration. For all their anti-migrant hate speech, the Tories have recently issued thousands of work visas so professionals and skilled workers can come to Britain. 

That’s because they ­understand there are serious labour shortages in many parts of the economy, and workers are essential to the business of making money. Britain’s bosses are screaming out for more sectors of the economy to be allowed to use the visa scheme. But they want only the most productive workers to come here.

Ramping up racism against those arriving in Britain “illegally” suits them fine because it distracts people from the way big firms are ripping everyone off. To solve the contradiction, both wings of the ruling class attach themselves to the idea of “good migrants” and “bad migrants”.

Their “good migrant” comes to Britain young, with skills taught to them in their home country, so employers here don’t have to pick up the bill. Being in good health and needing few services, they quickly become net contributors to the state and a bonus to employers.

Work-dependent visas regulate their stay, so overseas ­workers’ employers can easily send them packing if they step out of line to demand better pay or conditions. Should the demand for labour suddenly decrease, the government need not renew their visas. And, because workers on temporary visas have no long term residency rights, when they get old the state has no obligation to care for them.

In parts of the world, capitalism is increasingly reliant on temporary immigration because it offers the ultimate flexible workforce. For the ruling class, a “bad immigrant” is someone who comes here out of necessity. Driven to arrive without documentation via the most dangerous routes to Britain, they arrive with no job waiting for them. 

Many will carry terrible physical and mental scars from the wars, hunger and climate catastrophes they have lived through. Some have impressive skills, incredible resilience and much to offer society. But their “bad immigrant” status means they are seen as a drain on Britain’s resources.

The purpose of this carefully constructed division is to allow the bosses to carry on importing the labour it needs. Yet at the same time they can bolster the racism that allows their system to go unchallenged. It is a set of assumptions shared by all the main political parties, including Labour.

That’s why Keir Starmer says a government he leads would stick with the Tories’ skills-based immigration controls. And it’s why he will not defend those who cross the Channel in small boats. Happily, this ruling class deception faces a challenge—a significant proportion of society don’t believe it. 

Years in which social integration in schools and workplaces has increased has doubtless helped this process. It means that people are generally less fearful of incomers. But it is generations of anti-racist struggle that are most responsible for attitudes to migrants changing for the better. That’s why surveys show people are far less worked up about immigration than politicians claim. 

They also show a significant anti-racist minority takes a consistently hard line in defence of refugees. According to a recent Mori poll, some 46 percent of people believe migration is a force for good, with only 29 percent disagreeing. Another set of polls by YouGov said 33 percent of the public want to allow more people fleeing persecution to come and live in Britain. 

Some 33 percent were happy to allow those who have made it here to settle. That’s great news for anyone wanting to drive back the wave of racist attacks on migrants. But the polling does reveal a weakness. Some 45 percent of people support Tory plans to ban anyone coming to Britain illegally from re-entering the country. 

That means a significant number of people have bought into the ruling class idea of good and bad migrants. Anti-racists should use this knowledge as a point of direction. It’s generally quite easy to win people to the idea that Britain needs migrants because they contribute economically.

A much harder argument is that Britain should allow in all those fleeing persecution, famine, war and climate disasters. But making this case against border controls is vital. That’s because hiding behind it is the ruling class idea that only people who aid capitalism should be allowed here.

Migrant labour doesn’t pull workers’ wages down

British capitalism’s insatiable thirst for workers was explained well in a Financial Times newspaper article last week. It points out that net migration hit a record high of 500,000 people last year, most of which came from outside the European Union. The rise is mostly because employers are using post-Brexit immigration laws to recruit in large numbers.

Under the new laws, skilled and “middle-skilled” workers must have a job from a licensed employer and a starting salary of at least £25,600. Care workers and nurses, and chefs and butchers are among the occupations where visas have soared. Bosses don’t pay this much because they care about their workers, but because they need people to get the jobs done.

Some see immigration as a bosses’ ploy to drive down wages by increasing the size of the potential workforce.  A minority go further to argue that jobs here ought to be reserved solely for “British workers” to protect pay rates. 

The idea that migrants automatically drive down wages has always been a myth. Workplace struggles are the deciding factor in how much people are paid, but in some circumstances, labour market shortages can work to our advantage. For example, the Home Office granted almost 1,300 visas for chefs in the last quarter of 2022. It says the “going rate” for the job is £18,900.

But employers must now guarantee a wage at least £6,700 more than that to get a visa for migrant staff. So £25,600 has in effect become a new minimum wage for experienced chefs. According to those that think immigration reduces wages, industries with labour shortages that aren’t allowed to recruit staff from abroad should have seen pay rise sharply. 

But agriculture, logistics, manufacturing and hospitality have seen pay growth well below the average. That’s why instead of focusing on restricting the labour market as a way of winning better pay, socialists are always better off fanning the flames of struggle. And that includes fighting to unite migrant and non-migrant workers.

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