Much of the right-wing media whipped up hostility and alarm in the run up to the 1 January end of restrictions on entry to Britain for people from Romania and Bulgaria
Much of the right-wing media whipped up hostility and alarm in the run up to the 1 January end of restrictions on entry to Britain for people from Romania and Bulgaria. Ninety Tory activists wrote to David Cameron demanding that he keep the restrictions, part of the pressure that led him to reaffirm measures reducing new immigrants’ access to state benefits and welfare, and to promise further limits to net migration.
Tory justice minister Chris Grayling tried to divert the venom onto the Liberal Democrats: "David Cameron has said very clearly he’d like to see tougher rules in future, and we’ve always said we would have implemented tougher rules in the past, but we don’t have a majority", he pleaded on Radio 4’s Today programme.
This is one side of the government’s stance – a ’tough on immigrants’ face to placate the Tory right, media and to try to out-flank immigration-hostile Ukip so that it gains fewer Tory votes in May’s elections.
The other side, however, is to aid the greed of the capitalists who are profiting hand over fist from cheaper migrant labour and want a plentiful supply to continue. Many of them have already been exploiting non-unionised eastern European migrants, including Romanians and Bulgarians, forcing them to suffer poverty pay and poor conditions.
The minimum wage is often ignored or outrageous ’deductions’ made from it to pay for overcrowded ’accommodation’ and other ’costs’. Official inspections are infrequent and incredibly only two employers have been prosecuted in four years for paying less than the minimum wage. In this way the bosses use migrant workers to push down wages for all workers in a ’race to the bottom’ that drives workers into competition, causing division and antagonism.
Another pay-hitting tool of the bosses at present – used against both migrant and British workers – is the UK opt-out from the EU’s Agency Workers Directive. The Directive gave agency workers entitlement to the same basic pay and conditions as permanent staff after 12 weeks, but the opt-out denies them this equality if they have a permanent contract with their agency.
Writing in the Independent on Sunday on 5 January, Labour leader Ed Miliband infuriated the CBI bosses’ organisation by pledging to end this ’loophole’ if Labour wins the next general election. He also proposes to increase fines for employers who breach minimum wage legislation, ban recruitment agencies from only targeting foreign workers, and stop firms paying less to workers who have accommodation tied to their job.
His remarks followed similar earlier ones made by Labour’s shadow immigration minister, David Hanson.
Also shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper wrote on her blog: "We want to see action to stop immigration being abused and exploited as a source of cheap labour to undercut wages and jobs".
But Labour was content to aid the capitalist’s thirst for cheaper foreign labour when it was last in power, and these statements of intent – while they could help a layer of workers – are deliberately nowhere near enough to seriously impede the bosses’ race to the bottom. To start down the road of doing that, a major programme of job creation would be needed, combined with a substantially higher minimum wage with no exceptions and evasions.
In addition, instead of Labour trying to divorce itself further from the trade unions and refusing to repeal the anti-trade union laws, it would be essential to recognise that the unions are crucial in enabling workers from all backgrounds to unite and fight for decent terms and conditions and improved pay across the board, in particular through collective bargaining rights.
An immediate rush of Romanian and Bulgarian workers into Britain in the first week of 2014 didn’t materialise. As the EU commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, László Andor, pointed out on New Year’s Day: "Bulgarian and Romanian citizens have already been free to work without restrictions in 19 countries that were not applying transitional measures… since Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007.
As a result there are over three million people from Bulgaria and Romania already living in other Member States and it is unlikely that there will be any major increase following the ending of the final restrictions".
Tory MP Mark Reckless and Labour MP Keith Vaz went to Luton airport on 1 January to meet a flight from Romania, only to find that a quarter of the plane’s seats were empty and most of its Romanian passengers were already living and working in the UK. It has also been reported that advance air bookings for the first three months of this year from Romania or Bulgaria to Britain are down compared with 2013.
This shows the falsity of the latest scaremongering predictions of Ukip and many Tories. But this won’t deter them from continuing to try to use immigration as a divisive tool electorally.
Trade unionists and socialists must strongly oppose this, countering genuine fears of overstretched services and resources by fighting for decent housing, services and jobs for all.
Experience has shown that no oceans, fences, draconian border controls or other barriers can prevent people who are desperate for a better life from migrating. Only successful workers’ struggles in their home countries to transform their prospects will diminish that motivation.
Likewise in Britain, workers’ unity and struggle, with the trade unions reaching out to organise migrant workers alongside others, is vital to stop the capitalist class from lowering living standards for all workers, using pay inequality, racism and cuts in the process.