Ignoring immigration and championing the gig economy has left low‑paid workers disillusioned and desperate, finds James Bloodworth
Attempts to find a single ‘root cause’ for Brexit invariably miss their target. The relationship between economics, immigration and culture is, as it were, a dialectical one, and a focus on one at the exclusion of all others usually reveals little more than the obsessions of the individual holding forth.
The most obvious case in point is perhaps immigration. Pundits who dislike immigration – or those whose public ‘brand’ is anchored to the notion that bigotry and prejudice are in some sense ‘authentically working class’ – are keen to emphasise the extent to which the Brexit vote was motivated by a hatred of foreigners. Just as the romantic socialists of the 20th century lionised the best of the working class, this prolier-than-thou style flips that on its head, elevating disquiet about immigration into a set of unimpeachable shibboleths. Thus Brexit entails pulling up the drawbridge on Spanish baristas and Romanian builders, unplugging Somalian Uber drivers and turning British universities into parochial and insular ivory towers.
Arguments of this sort are unintentionally bolstered by the tendency of some to deny that immigration to Britain has any impact whatsoever. Along with a dollop of sleep-inducing buzzwords around ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’, this features the deployment of panglossian and data-heavy reports which show that immigration has ‘only a small negative impact’ on the take-home pay and conditions of low-paid workers. We then carry on as if the political upheavals of recent years never happened.
In contrast, a good democratic socialist approach would be to accept that immigration brings fresh challenges while eschewing answers that focus on tighter border controls. The democratic socialist approach to immigration ought, in other words, to be one in which unpleasant facts are generously acknowledged while the answers are constructed on our own terms. This seems especially important when many on the left are gravitating toward a parochial interpretation of ‘social democracy in one country’ on the back of Brexit.
First of all, it is perhaps worth me highlighting some of the things I encountered during the research for my new book before setting out some of the potential policy responses. During the six months I spent travelling around the world of low paid work, I invariably ended up in areas that were once thriving hubs of British industry. The United Kingdom’s former mining areas alone are home to around 5.5 million people – about nine per cent of the population. These areas voted overwhelmingly in 2016 to leave the European Union.
Rugeley, a small former colliery town where I spent time in the west Midlands, was illustrative in terms of the sort of working class discontent swilling around the subject of immigration. Like many other areas of the UK, the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s left a grim legacy. When the Lea Hall colliery closed on 25 January 1991, it immediately threw 1,250 men out of work. The figure in actuality was much higher once you factored in those working in the support industries who also lost their jobs. Many of the men who worked down the pit never worked again when it closed. I was regularly informed in the pubs and social clubs that Rugeley had ‘never recovered’ from the closure of the pit. The jobs which had replaced the old ones were, as one former miner put it to me, ‘based on zero-hours contracts and fear’. When Amazon, the world’s biggest multinational, arrived in 2011 to open one of its giant warehouses, laudatory headlines filled the local newspapers. ‘There was gonna be all these jobs,’ as one local woman put it to me, before adding forlornly that ‘no one ended up getting any’.
This was not strictly true of course: locals did end up getting jobs at Amazon. However by the time I arrived in 2016, the people willing to tolerate the pay and conditions on offer as an order picker at Amazon were predominantly eastern Europeans (and there was a pecking order here too: it was mostly Romanians I worked with at Amazon as opposed to, say, Poles). Whereas local people grew tired of the ridiculous productivity targets, the punitive policies around sickness and the regular underpayment of wages by the employment agencies, many of my Romanian co-workers were poor and desperate. ‘How are we supposed to compete with that?’ as a local Labour councillor asked me rhetorically one night in the working men’s club.
A similar situation prevailed in the Welsh valleys. As a Centre for Cities report put it in 2015, since de-industrialisation many former coalfield areas have ‘replaced jobs in declining industries with lower-skilled, more routinised jobs’. Pits and power stations had been replaced by call centres and warehouses; though crucially, many of the newer jobs lack the strong unions and hard-won terms and conditions that were a feature of the jobs they replaced. Notwithstanding ill-judged misplaced nostalgia about sending other people’s children into the bowels of a mountain for work, industry did at least offer a degree of self-respect, camaraderie and, perhaps most importantly of all, security. One is unlikely to get a mortgage whilst on a nine month zero hours contract at Amazon.
This lived reality of immigration – as opposed to theoretical and pollyanna soundbites – invariably breeds resentment at new arrivals. But there are some very obvious social democratic solutions which do not entail blaming workers themselves – migrant workers in this case – for the fact they are more easily exploited by unscrupulous bosses. It is especially important to make this case when the nuclear option – leaving the European single market and customs union – is increasingly attractive for well-intentioned people who sympathise with the pain of communities such as those I have mentioned.
Probably the first step in addressing some of the aforementioned grievances would be to properly enforce existing laws. This sounds pedestrian until one recognises that the law is regularly being flouted at present. David Metcalf, director of labour market enforcement, at the civil service, sarcastically told a department for work and pensions select committee in 2017 that the average firm could expect an investigation into non-payment of the minimum wage ‘once every 500 years’. He added that this was ‘hardly an incentive to comply’. Moving forward, a more effective level of enforcement must punish things like late payments by employment agencies but also those who flout the spirit of the law (an example would be home care workers who are not paid for the time it takes to travel between jobs). Raising the minimum wage is an obvious answer to fears around undercutting, but half the battle is making sure it is enforced properly.
The next step would be to tackle exploitative zero-hours contracts. Any attempt to ban them completely would be a blunt instrument – what would stop companies giving employees, say, one hour contracts? They can also be useful for those with other commitments: I used one myself at the Royal Mail while I was at university a decade ago. But for those workers that do want regular hours, a Labour government should oblige companies to offer proper contracts after a set period of time. As things stand, some companies are using zero-hours contracts as another tool with which to enforce servility among a fearful workforce. During my research, I spoke to a number of social carers who told me that if they ever kicked up a fuss about conditions at work their hours would be ‘cut right down’.
Precarious, short-term contracts also create the impression of a labour market which favours a transitory workforce that is ‘just passing through’, as it were, rather than a labour market that benefits those who intend to live and work in the towns they grew up in. Theresa May said in response to the Matthew Taylor review into the modern labour market that her government planned to give workers on zero-hours contracts the right to demand permanent work. It seems likely therefore that proposals like this would attract cross‑party support.
Something else which ought to be looked at are the onerous and restrictive reporting and balloting obligations trade unions face when they ballot to go out on strike. There is no question that the trade unions need to up their game when it comes to organising in the contemporary economy, but some of the legalistic sophistry which companies use to prevent strikes warrant scrutiny. Jeremy Corbyn is right when he says that we need a strong trade union in every workplace. Not least because it can counteract the scapegoating and conspiracy-mongering about migrant workers that radiates from certain newspapers. Populism’s appeal is built partly on its ability to find a visible target for grievances which seem faceless and uncontrollable. A revitalised trade union movement would help to foster a sense among working people that they can act rather than simply be acted upon by wider forces.
All of this could be accomplished without abandoning the prosperity which comes with preferential access to European markets. It is a ‘radicalism of the possible’, and a set of policies which would, over the long-term, undermine some of the hostility toward immigration that a culture of precarity has bolstered
James Bloodworth is author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. @J_Bloodworth
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