Unsurprisingly, the Conservative government laid out a post-Brexit immigration policy designed with flaws and short-sighted thinking. This is the party that has spent years setting ridiculous arbitrary figures for immigration numbers and then tried to explain their failures.
It is one of the significant reasons why we have Brexit. The Tories have for years indulged in xenophobia to justify tougher policies around immigration. But now the annual £30,000 income threshold set out by the government for prospective immigrants has garnered outrage. Unsurprising, immigrants after all earning blow this salary can be doctors, teachers and more.
There internal divisions within the party over this with a growing prediction that this threshold will be lowered to £21,000. Business groups have so far been generally critical of this. The arguments here are echoes of the liberal celebrations of free movement: immigrant labour enriches our economy significantly, by £20billion. Areas such as education and the NHS depend crucially on overseas workers. This is of course to just reduce migrants to numbers and overlook how they enrich us culturally. The high streets of cities like London, Manchester and others are shaped by the touch of migrant contributions who have settled down and made roots in their communities.
The whole Brexit affair on this note is a sad thing. There are economic arguments on opposing open borders and how it can lead to a competition between the workforce and lead to the driving down of wages. But that’s not what Brexit was fought on and those on the “Lexit” side of the argument are seeing things through a prism of ideological naivety. The rhetoric around the referendum was poisoned by bigotry that has since made Britain feel less welcoming for migrants.
But though Theresa May was wrong to set targets on salaries and ignoring how it affects sectors, the liberal outrage has at times been very class-blind and to put it short, looked at the exploitation of migrants as economic freedom.
James Bloodworth detailed this during some undercover work in some of the country’s most low-paid and poorly treated workplaces. Everything he found there was a ubiquitous illustration of how many low-paid migrant workers fared. As he said, “If you can turn labour on like a tap - if you have a large reservoir of workers who are desperate for any work that you will give them - collective bargaining power is invariably weakened. I saw many things that simply would not fly if they had been done to British nationals.”
And though there is little evidence to suggest that migrant labour leads to a wage depression, very little research has actually gone into understanding the conditions in which migrant workers toil. It is all very well advocating a liberal and globalist Britain but how does it look like for those at the bottom of the labour market with very little power to wield a voice and make themselves heard?
Ask yourselves why businesses are so keen to maintain freedom of movement and regularly frame the narrative as migrants doing the work that locals won’t? It’s simply a terribly inaccurate generalisation to paint it as hard-working migrants against the lazy locals. A migrant worker afraid of losing their job and being deported is more likely to accept lower pay and poorer work conditions. And they are less inclined to join a union and organise a workplace revolt against their greedy employer if they don’t see Britain as a home for the long-term.
Strengthening the rights of migrant labour could possibly bridge the divisions in the labour market between migrant and local and prevent employers preferring the exploited migrant over the local. It would also force employers to begin investing in local workers and not simply try and cut costs through cheap foreign labour. And perhaps force society to stop looking at EU migrants as commodities who are just temporarily sharing space but people actually deserving of long-term stakes in their communities.
This is a problem of the low-pay labour market in creating a sense of impermanence and insecurity amongst the migrant workers, and it contributes to a sense of social fragmentation and isolation. It doesn’t allow them to build roots in their communities because of the fragile status of their work conditions. If you are working terrible hours with awful pay not knowing your future beyond the next month, how emotionally involved are you going to be in your community if you don’t speak the language naturally? How do you raise a family and put down roots into the town you are living in?
The left has not spoken well on this during Brexit. The social climate has required socialists to be careful when discussing how employers abuse freedom of movement. Language was a tool of Leave in scarring the image of migrants, and it’s not something the left has understood. But it would be a betrayal of migrant workers if we refused to articulate an argument that criticised employers for abusing their pay and conditions. That is not solidarity. It is abdication.
We should be critical of what Theresa May is aiming to do with her policies but let’s not be uncritical either of how employers have abused migrant workers and turned them into commodities.