Labour and immigration

I.  Labour's policy on immigration is as yet unclear. 

Corbyn has said that, though Labour is not 'wedded' to 'free movement', he refuses to set reducing immigration as a goal, or set any targets. 

The Labour manifesto committed Labour to a "fair" system of managing immigration, without it being clear what that meant. There were some inclusive, humane signals such as a promise to review Britain's diabolical asylum system, and end income thresholds for residency. But what does 'fairness' look like when it comes to migrant labour? Is it even possible?

A Labour policy paper leaked during the general election indicated that the party would favour adapting the current five-tiered visa system, "including the currently unused tier applicable to those seeking low-skilled, unskilled or seasonal work".

This would imply that, rather than using the Schengenian 'free movement' system, Labour would operate a US-style 'green card' system. In such a system, those migrating at the bottom tier might have a shorter visa stay than those higher up. This might potentially change the composition of labour migration -- indeed, Nigel Farage might get exactly what he claimed to want, with more migrants coming from other parts of the world like India. But it need not necessarily reduce the total number of migrants, since Labour has made it clear that reducing net totals is not a priority. What it would do, unarguably, is significantly expand border controls.  

II. Schengenian 'free movement' is a liberal institution that is also racist in principle. Free movement, so far as it goes, is desirable, and something is lost by ending even this limited form. The answer to Schengen racism is not Little Britain racism. However, it is analytical dereliction not to grapple with what 'free movement' actually means.

The Schengen Agreement is one of the laws of the European Union, originally developed in 1985. Incorporated into the EU legal structure with the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, this law allows for the free movement of people within the Union. 

It is one of the famous "four freedoms" in the Union, the others being freedoms for capital. Free movement of people was a logical extension of the plans to create a single market: in effect, to treat the members of the Union as parts of one interlocked capitalist economy.

But freedom within meant raising walls and razor-wire to the outside. Coterminously, therefore, there was a tightening of border controls around Europe, and new systems such as FRONTEX were created to help prevent what it called, and continues to call, illegal migration

The majority of 'illegal' migrants arrive with passport and visa by plane, and work in the jobs they were hired to work in. But that is not what the labelling was getting at. If states, is it were, 'state', one of the ways they do so is by creating social classifications and giving them normative and juridical force. Any naming in this sense is performative. To call a particular group of immigrants illegal if you are a state is, in a way, to make them so. Certainly, insofar as the states of the European Union preemptively deemed the vast majority of asylum seekers to be 'illegal', it treated them as such, and developed expanding systems of surveillance and monitoring to arrange speedy deporttations.

The Dublin Agreement, struck in 2004, stated that refugees had to place their asylum claim in the first country they arrived at. In practice, since refugees travel overland or by sea, often the first country they arrive at will be Greece or Italy, so that countries of north-western Europe like Germany aren’t bothered. Their fingerprints are taken where they land, and fed into a database so that they can be tracked.

Since 2009, the unelected executive of the EU, the European Commission, has been developing new protocols under the rubric of the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, tightening up frontier controls and mandating deportation of all ‘illegals’ in all member states. These changes were informed by the increasingly securitarian and Islamophobic drift of many member states, especially France which then held the EU presidency, in the aftermath of the ‘war on terror’.

And, of course, the system is currently supported not only by FRONTEX raids on refugee boats, resulting in a spike in mediterranean drownings, but also by the biggest of all illegal pushbacks, consecrated in the deal between Merkel and Erdogan.

If you take the approach of Domenico Losurdo, there is nothing particularly paradoxical in a fundamentally liberal institution, free movement, having this fundamentally racist obverse. Liberalism has always been distinguished by its logic of exclusions; there is always someone for whom the universal doesn't apply.

III.  There has, since the 1990s, been a significant increase in labour migration in the United Kingdom, the great majority of it coming from within the European Union. The percentage of foreign-born workers in the UK increased from 3 million (7.2% of the total labour force) in 1993 to 7 million (16.7%) in 2015.

About a third of these live and work in London, on the pattern of 'global cities'. The low-paid among them, the majority, have become a racialised 'reserve army of labour' in the classic marxian pattern. This has been accompanied, not by the thinning out of the middle expected by 'global cities' literature, but by professionalisation of occupations in the London labour market, with a growing number of managers and professionals. Nonetheless, there was some occupational polarisation with an absolute increase in top jobs, and a complementary absolute increase in the number of low-wage jobs at the bottom.

Why has this happened? There is a marxist political economy, rooted in the study of migrant economies in apartheid South Africa, which can explain some of it. In particular, the costs of reproducing migrant labour in a 'free movement' zone are much lower than the costs of reproducing domestic labour. The price of labour is suppressed by a number of factors, including the fact that for short-term migrants, the inputs are determined in part by prices in Warsaw or Bucharest -- so, if you have a family to send money back to, a little extra money made in London counts for a lot more back home. There are also the collective conditions of housing and transport for many workers, which reduces costs even more.

But, of course, 'the economy' is never free-standing, never exists apart from its political and legal constitution. The impact of welfare policies, labour market laws, and 'managed migration' collectively help constitute hierarchies in work. Successive British governments since the Thatcher-era have made a competitive advantage out of low wage labour, relying on supply-side improvements to reduce the 'natural' level of unemployment. They have rolled back state protections and wage bargaining, imposed competition in local services, and relied on markets to discipline the bottom end of the labour market and impose flexibility. Changes to the welfare system, hailed as 'workfare', have been designed to promote this flexibility and low-wage culture. This means that where labour markets are tight, and shortages need to be filled, it is less likely that they will be filled by raising wages: that is not what is meant by 'making work pay'. 

It is within this broadly neoliberal growth formula that it makes sense for employers to turn to low-wage, insecure migrant labour. The Work Foundation, a think-tank initially set up under Will Hutton's leadership, elucidates some of the assumptions behind this. In short, it argues that given the government's macroeconomic commitments, the choice was between turning to migrant labour, or using high interest rates to deflate wage pressures arising from tighter labour markets at the bottom.

In other words, this racialised form of labour market segregation is not just a product of economic processes, but is a result of a whole orientation of statecraft -- what David Harvey somewhere called a "spatio-temporal fix" for capitalist dysfunction.

IV.  Does this mean, then, that UK-born workers are in some sense being undercut by migrant workers? Not so fast.

First of all, remember that many of the new low-wage jobs which have been created simply couldn't be filled by workers born and permanently residing in the UK, given the costs of reproducing their labour. The jobs market is not, in that sense, a zero-sum game. Migration allowed for a significant expansion in total employment, some of which otherwise would not have happened.

Second, insofar as there is increased competition in the labour market, there is very little evidence for any generalised wage-depressant effect. Research suggests that there is no net negative impact from migration on wages. Many studies, for example by the centre-left IPPR think-tank, suggest a moderate net increase in wages, as does a similar study by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CRAM) at UCL. 

Third, there is, however, plenty of evidence that migrant labour itself is exploited by this system, and that insofar as there are wage-depressant effects at the bottom, migrant workers are the ones to suffer. This is indicated by LSE research, which finds that "the only sizeable effect of increased immigration is on the wages of those immigrants who are already here."

The CRAM analysis suggests that in fact the moderate overall growth of wages is concentrated at the top of the wage structure, and that one possible explanation for this is that as migrant workers are being paid less than the market value of their labour in the UK, there is an additional surplus that is redistributed up the chain.

On top of this, some of the redistribution is worked out through the social wage. The net fiscal impact of immigration was estimated by the Migration Observatory at Oxford to be small but positive. And the OBR estimates that higher rates of migration, by increasing the working age population relative to the dependent population, reduces the pressure on government borrowing. This doesn't mean migration in certain areas didn't increase the load on local services; it just means that there was no reason why the government couldn't have more than covered any additional outlay necessary.

In the last analysis, in marxist terms, all state expenditures are a deduction from profits. Even if they're funded by consumption taxes, that merely tends to push up the price of labour. Of course, things in the real world are never as pure as in the last analysis, since raising consumption taxes can be one moment in a wider process of ruling class struggle intended to cut working-class consumption overall. That is, after all, what austerity is all about. And it is quite possible that concretely, in the actual rhythm of political struggle, an increase in revenues to the Treasury would have helped offset the pressure to cut expenditures. But, from the point of view of this last analysis, we would have to say that the net contribution of migrant labour to British coffers is a net saving to profits.

However, all of these effects are minor relative to the total labour market and to total state expenditures. What I am describing is a situation in which a combination of 'workfare', 'flexibility', privatisation, competition, 'free movement' in some areas, and 'managed migration' in others, increased the rate of exploitation of migrant workers to the benefit of the capitalist class. But it is also a truism that labour market segregation harms the bargaining power of those supposedly in the 'privileged' position in it.

V.  All of these claims and measurements are, of course, relative to a set of prevailing macroeconomic assumptions. If you make a different set of assumptions about how economies work, then different conclusions are entailed.

What I mean is this. The debate about migrant labour is structured around the red herring of whether 'free movement' undercuts UK-born workers in terms of employment and wages. Even if there were significant evidence of it doing so, it would be a red herring, since the grammar of the question is wrong. There is no abstract 'free movement', only the freedom of movement within a given economic and policy context. You can have free movement on a neoliberal and racist-exclusionary basis -- which, indeed, is part of a system which does disadvantage UK-born workers as well as migrant workers -- or you can have free movement on a socialist, or at least social-democratic, basis.

For example, suppose a Labour government were to reverse decades of neoliberal orthodoxy. Suppose that, in place of counter-inflation it privileged full employment and high wages as its main economic policy priority. Suppose its goal was to create competitive advantages through state investment, rather than eke out competitive advantages from low-wage labour. Suppose it rolled back anti-union legislation, so that the long decline of union representation was reversed. Suppose it reorganised the welfare state, abolishing workfare and sanctions and all the forms of coercion designed to make people more available for low-wage work. Suppose it rolled back privatisation and competition measures, and introduced collective bargaining where possible.

Setting aside the difficulties in actually achieving this against entrenched opposition from the business class, such an approach would have to imply an attack on labour market segregation. If anyone is tempted to say this means ending free movement, let me say they've missed the point entirely. Creating new legal restrictions on migrant labour simply increases its precarity and vulnerability. 

By expanding the remit of the border men, and intensifying surveillance, one wouldn't even necessarily reduce the total amount of migration -- and Labour has said this isn't a priority -- but it would help drive migrant workers further into the shadows where they are more susceptible to violence and hyper-exploitation. They would end up with less pay, with more immiserated existence, living in even worse death-trap accommodation. It would create more "illegal" migrants, and thus more misery. That doesn't suppress wage-competition. It might give it a new, more segregated structure, with a sharpened, racialised set of advantages and disadvantages -- but that would in aggregate intensify labour market competition and strengthen the bargaining position of employers, particularly the cut-throat poverty employers.

Rather, for a leftist growth model to work, one would need to give up completely on the idea of squeezing a competitive advantage out of a bargain basement economy. One would need, if anything, a far more egalitarian labour market policy. One would need to proactively suppress labour market segregation on all axes. One would need various measures to ban exploitation along gender and racial axes. One would need all workers, regardless of origin, to have equal pay for the same work, equal access to the state, equal protection under law, equal access to housing and welfare, equal access to union representation, and so on. 

Breaking with neoliberalism means breaking, not with free movement as a goal and principle, but with a racially segregated labour system. This isn't uncomplicated. Suppressing competition through state intervention reduces the 'pull' factors for migrants. From a certain point of view, it reduces their opportunities. But it does so, precisely by levelling up, by attacking labour market segregation as a principle.

VI.  It would be completely unrealistic to expect Labour to embrace an open borders policy. The balance of forces in Labour, let alone the wider country, simply wouldn't let that happen. I'm not even sure who would be able to organise around such a demand, or what the political effects of doing so would be. "Momentum for Open Borders"? I can't see it.

However, that doesn't mean progress cannot be made, and reaction resisted. To an extent, it already has been. In the New Labour era, we had what proved to be a toxic combination; a 'free movement' system organised along segregated patterns supported by labour market and workfare policy; and a set of political triangulations in which every other week a minister would expound on the need to control immigration and enforce integration, especially of those troublesome Muslims. Taken alongside the breakdown of large, unionised workforces as Labour allowed manufacturing to go bust, and the concomitant growth of racial segregation among UK-born workers in the labour market, this contributed to gains made by the far right.

The last general election abruptly changed the dynamic. Labour didn't win, but it surged to a degree without precedent post-1945. And it did so, despite (or because of) the fact that Corbyn was widely depicted as someone who wanted an immigration free-for-all. Despite (or because of) the fact that he was attacked day in and day out as an alibi of foreign terrorists. Despite (or because of) the fact that he systematically repudiated the very right-wing arguments on immigration to which all previous Labour leaderships have grovellingly deferred. Despite (or because of) the fact that he refused to set a target for reducing immigration levels.

Yes, Labour's official position was ambiguous, and yes that may have softened the attitude of some of the 'red' Ukippers, and defused some of the attacks. But in retrospect, and in future, I don't think it can be taken for granted that a broadly pro-immigrant stance is an electoral liability. I think, with the electorate changing, it is possible over the medium term to a) win the argument for maintaining such free movement as we currently have, b) win the argument for de-stigmatising refugees, abolishing the detention centres and ending the appalling conditions in Calais; and c) addressing the decades-long, systematic, racist exclusions aimed at citizens of what used to be called the 'New Commonwealth'.

At the very least, the election showed that provided it has a radical agenda that excites its supporters, Labour doesn't have to be scared of the Crosby smear-and-dog-whistle machine, of tabloid poison, or even of Ukip. The Left can be confident, rather than cowed, in its arguments. It doesn't have to accept either a defensive posture of uncritically crawling to the EU and its version of free movement, or an even more defensive posture of demanding an end to free movement. 

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