The International Writers Magazine: UK Politics
Immigration & Globalisation
Immigration is much in the news of late, largely because of David Cameron’s panic response to the rise of UKIP. One cannot scan a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast without encountering the subject. In my view, most of the discussion on immigration, certainly in the UK, ignores the context in which immigration takes place.
Two problems are frequently raised, benefit migrants and the ‘stealing of British jobs’. Both problems are soluble, or should be if approached intelligently by the government, and soluble without upsetting our partners in the EU. Trying to impose a cap on migration from other EU countries is most certainly not an intelligent approach.
Let me correct the oversight of many commentators on the subject by placing migration in its proper context. Migration of labour between states, not just in Europe, is an integral element of globalisation. Globalisation is usually seen as applicable only to the international movement of capital, but there is no logical reason why disinterested parties should accept such a narrow interpretation. Capital and labour alike are elements of production. If we are to allow capital to move across international boundaries in search of markets and or labour, it is difficult to explain the economic logic of treating labour differently.
There are, of course, some evident political consequences arising from mass migration of labour, but the same applies to the movement of capital. To take attention away from Europe for a moment, we can understand that many Americans become angry over the inflow to the USA of migrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America or the Caribbean. That inflow clearly causes all kinds of problems for some American citizens, although other citizens encourage the process by benefiting from cheap labour. Yet, we see little protest against the outflow of capital across those same borders, even though that is also a source of problems for many.
In Britain too, we hear arguments against foreigners taking jobs while British people are unemployed, but not a word about the unemployment caused by the flight of capital to Asia and elsewhere. Why is that? I employ a Romanian cleaning woman who does an excellent job, being better and cheaper than the English woman we hired previously from an agency. Is that somehow more reprehensible than buying a nominally British product made in China because it is cheap? Should I care more for the English woman’s loss of work more than I care about the workers sacked because their company now manufactures abroad?
For the record, I have opposed the globalisation process for many years and predicted over twenty years ago what the effect would eventually be on British employment, the erosion of protective employment law. In 1996 I wrote “Their employer, if they have one, will probably be a labour only contractor offering them short-term contracts of employment and selling on their skills….It is possible that they will not have a contract of any kind. We could see the white-collar equivalent of the old tally system used on the docks whereby workers reported for duty in the morning with no guarantee of work that day.” (The Leadership & Organization Development Journal. Vol. 17. No 5) I find it ironic that some who thought me alarmist are now bemoaning the influx of immigrant labour.
Now, for the two problems I mentioned in the first paragraph, above. Let us take first the question of benefit migrants. Why is it that some migrants from outside the EU are so keen to reach the UK that they are prepared to risk life and limb? The old point made by some liberals that they are desperate to escape tyranny doesn’t really wash. Many have escaped tyranny already, having reached Europe. What they hope to escape from is asylum in France, or another European country.
I do not suggest that all these would-be immigrants to Britain are benefit scroungers, as the term goes, but it is a fact that getting benefits here is much easier than getting them in France, or elsewhere in Europe. The reason for the disparity is fairly simple. Whereas other countries have a contributory benefit system which places restrictions on access related to contribution, we Brits have no such scheme. National Insurance contributions in Britain are poured into the Treasury’s general revenue pot, along with various taxes. Likewise, benefit costs are met from that general pot. However, that should not prevent Britain from insisting that in order to draw benefits a person must have paid National Insurance for a specified time. What we could not do under EU rules would be to discriminate in its application.
The second problem, foreigners taking ‘British jobs’ is a little more complicated, but is soluble, in part at least. It is perfectly legal in Britain to pay someone less than the national minimum wage if that person is ‘self-employed’ rather than an employee with a contract of employment. The current national minimum wage for anyone over twenty-one years of age is £6.50 per hour. Anyone with a family must struggle to get by on that figure. However, an immigrant sharing accommodation with several others may be able to manage on less. If that immigrant is prepared to declare him or herself as self-employed they may take as little as £3.50 per hour.
In such circumstances, the British worker with a family cannot possibly compete for the work. The label ‘self-employed’ is usually entirely spurious and is adopted only as a ploy to get round the minimum wage rules. Even when the national minimum wage is paid, the employer saves the expense of national insurance payments and sickness and holiday pay etc. It has now become common for employers to demand that the worker is ‘self-employed’, particularly in the construction industry. The government would do well to outlaw such scams, rather than threatening to cap immigration. It would play a part at least in preventing foreign labour from undercutting the locals.
Will the government tackle these two problems through legislation? Don’t hold your breath. There are far too many employers making a packet out of the existing arrangements.
© Tom Kilcourse Nov 6th 2014
Spitting Into the Wind
There are a number of indications around that we are coming to the end of three decades of self-delusion and economic lunacy. During that period, since 1980, we have been following a single, narrow economic philosophy that goes by the name of neo-liberalism.