Defend free movement

Issue section: 

Theresa May is putting the end of free movement of labour at the heart of her plan for Brexit. Carlo Morelli explains why socialists and anti-racists must make defence of EU workers a priority.

The free movement of labour has taken centre stage in debates over the UK’s exit from the European Union. Theresa May’s Tory government has promoted racism in order to garner support electorally, especially in traditional Labour supporting working class communities, and identified control over immigration as the overriding factor in the Brexit referendum.

Ending the free movement of labour, without providing rights to remain for existing migrants in the EU, could affect around 3 million EU nationals in the UK and more than a million UK nationals in the EU.

May’s linking of the ending of the free movement of labour with leaving the single market is of course a cynical attempt to combine a nationalist racism with a refocusing of British capitalism on global rather than European markets. There is no reason why leaving the single market could not be combined with a unilateral decision to recognise the right of freedom of movement. In this article I seek to explain why socialists and anti-racists need to defend freedom of movement from a class perspective but also why it is so important for advanced capitalist economies.

The EU referendum vote needs to be recognised as a class-based reaction to austerity and neoliberalism. While the Tories in both the Remain and Leave camps pushed anti-immigrant racism throughout, ably helped on by an uncritical media, study after study of the vote has contested the significance of racism as the deciding factor. Racism clearly was an element of the vote, but in polls such as Lord Ashcroft’s attitudes survey, the reasons most people gave for a Leave vote tended to be about democracy and anti-elitism rather than racism. The greatest correlation was in fact income bracket — the lower the income, the more likely to vote to leave the EU

The racist arguments put by May and others in the Tory party often relate “rising immigration” to the decline of public services and lack of housing and well-paid jobs. This is an attempt to build upon genuine discontent among working class people about declining living standards and economic uncertainty since the crash of 2008. If left unchallenged these arguments can gain a foothold. Many workers in Britain are instinctively anti-racist; more hold contradictory ideas which can sometimes take the form of accepting anti-migrant racism.

Control over immigration policy is then set as the key power May is seeking to regain from the EU and the ending of the free movement of labour is the focus of this approach. It is crucial for anti-racists, trade unionists and socialists to recognise that the end of free movement is an attack on the collective working class and needs to be resisted from a class perspective.

Allowing racism to be driven into working class communities will divide opposition to cuts by allowing government to deflect opposition to cuts in health, housing, jobs or wages.

Challenging migrants’ access to welfare will be the excuse for cuts which are targeted at undermining all working class people’s access to services. So suggesting passports are checked before people gain access to NHS care hides the fact that the NHS crisis is one of underfunding not one of healthy people seeking to consume something just because it is free!

Similarly with wages, a real problem is disguised as one that results from migrants — and specifically from free movement of labour inside the EU. Real hourly wages have fallen by more than 10 percent in Britain since 2008. It has become “common sense” to assert that free movement is bad for workers’ wages.

Last December right wing Labour MP Andy Burnham put it thus: “Free movement was being used to undermine skilled wages and we did not do enough about it.” He went on to say that Labour should advocate an immigration policy that is about reducing numbers — or else there’d be trouble: “Our reluctance in confronting this debate is undermining the cohesion of our communities and the safety of our streets.”

This kind of rhetoric puts the blame for falling wages in the wrong place. The downward pressures on wages come from employers being allowed to squeeze workers — whether migrants or not — harder in order to maintain profit levels. Public sector pay freezes over the past few years have held down wages for millions of workers. The counter to this is not curbing immigration — it is stronger and more militant union organisation which is united and prepared to take on the bosses.

It is not just socialists who contest the idea that migrants lower wages. A major study on the subject by three economists carried out between 1997 and 2005 found that immigration had the overall effect of raising average wages by a small amount.

Unfortunately, within the trade unions and the Labour Party there is significant opposition to the free movement of labour and it is overcoming this that is key to developing resistance to the broader austerity that May wants to impose. Gordon Brown’s support for “British jobs for British workers” when he was prime minister and Unite union leader Len McCluskey’s ambiguity over the continuation of the free movement of labour are indicative of the way that the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy blend ideas of nationalism with class.

McCluskey rightly argues that foreign workers should be unionised and hence protected from lower wages or worse conditions than British born workers. The problem is that this, in practice, means curbing freedom of movement, because, in practice, most migrants will not be unionised when they arrive in Britain.

McCluskey puts this in terms of “control of labour supply” benefitting workers. As a result the Unite leadership (like many others in the Labour Party and some other unions) placed uncritical faith in EU directives to defend workers and takes a default position that seeks to maintain access to the single market while seeking an end to freedom of movement.

This pressure is put to bear on Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has consistently supported migrant rights throughout his political career. His dangerous concession on the question last month, when he said that Labour was “not wedded” to the idea of freedom of movement and that migrant workers “undercut wages” is a sign of that pressure – and must be challenged.

Migrant workers provide an opportunity to strengthen our unions — as they have done throughout the history of trade union struggles. It is not an accident that the origins of “unskilled” trade unionism in Britain, often identified with the London Match Women’s strike of 1881, was led by a group of predominantly Irish workers, or that recent disputes of cleaners and low paid health care and university workers have similarly involved high levels of migrant workers.

Nor is this militancy then confined to migrant workers. The spate of industrial disputes at the end of 2016 affecting network industries, rail, post, airline and airports all involved migrant and indigenous workers collectively.

Trade union support for freedom of movement is essential to maintaining and improving living standards for all workers in the UK. May’s attempt to abandon it does not derive from a desire to increase pay and conditions for indigenous UK workers and instead from the desire to develop a new means to reduce pay and conditions at home in response to a crisis of profitability within European capitalism.

Within the EU an approach to capitalist development since the 1990s has been to include access to the single market and freedom of movement. Prior to the 1990s, movement of labour within the EU was negligible, with the exception of Eire, at 1.6 percent of the EU working population. Since free movement of labour was introduced in the 1990s it has been a model shared by the British employers’ organisation the CBI, the City of London and most of big business and puts much of British capitalism at odds with the likes of Theresa May, UKIP and the Tory right.

Big business support for free movement of labour comes directly from their economic needs in protecting their rights to labour, but it is facing significant tensions as a result of weak growth and stagnation within the EU economies.

Advanced economies face rapidly falling fertility rates as part of the social and technological changes, underway since the 1960s. Social changes with women’s increasing economic independence along with technological change, such as contraception allowing women control over their bodies along with improvements in health care reducing child mortality, have together led to a rapid change in demographics.

Within the EU these changes are having a profound impact on labour markets such that no single EU country is close to the “replacement level” of fertility required to maintain its population of 2.1 children per woman. In 1980 the fertility rate across the EU was 1.88 children per woman and fell to 1.5 per woman by 2004. By 2014 this had risen slightly to 1.58, possibly as a result of expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe.

As a consequence of the general decline in birth rates workforces have become older and this has placed limits on the potential for employment, economic growth and above everything else profitability.

Employment rates within the dominant countries in the EU are high and yet constrained. In 2015 the UK employment participation rate for the 20 to 64 age group reached historically high levels at 76.8 percent while in Germany the figure was still higher at 79 percent. This is in contrast to the smaller, less powerful economies, such as the accession economies Poland, Bulgaria and so on, where participation rates are around 67 percent.

At the same time the aging population in the advanced economies places significant restrictions upon the extent to which increasing participation can be achieved, thus while the participation rate for all workers is high the participation rate for older workers aged 55 to 64 drops significantly, by around 10 percent, in most advanced EU economies.

Thus EU expansion and the free movement of labour have been essential to the continued industrial development of the advanced economies in the EU allowing younger, skilled and more economically active workers into the most advanced nations. This labour is not simply young but also relatively highly educated and skilled. Much of the work migrant workers do is more skilled than is generally assumed. While many migrants are concentrated in occupations not generally considered skilled, such as seasonal agricultural labour, this isn’t the case for all. EU migrants are now more likely to be permanently employed and can be found working across a wider range of industries. Data from the Office for National Statistics suggests EU workers make up 7.4 percent of the total workforce (up from 2.5 percent in 1997).

There is a clash between big business in the UK, which generally wants more liberal migration in order to have a plentiful supply of cheap labour to exploit, and leading politicians, along with much of the base of the Conservative Party, who believe it is in their interest to scapegoat migrants. For the left the starting point is neither of these, but instead to fight against divide and rule which ultimately undermines the working class by weakening its solidarity and binding a section of it to the ruling class.

With British capitalism struggling to return to greater growth, and the party of government divided over the future for Britain, opportunities for working class resistance to cuts are great. Central to a movement emerging against austerity will be the construction of unity and solidarity within the working class. Defence of freedom of movement and wider migrant workers’ rights is a key condition of constructing that unity and must be a priority for all socialists, anti-racists and trade unionists in the coming months.

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