We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Time for one-day migrant strike

United Kingdom
Economics
Migration
Refugees
Work
11.08.15-Kings-Cross-Construction-Workers-590x393.jpg

King's Cross railway station, London. CGP Grey under a Creative Commons Licence

What would make people realize the contributions that migrants make to society? asks Paul Donovan.

Migrants are getting tired of contributing to British society while at the same time being vilified for their very presence in the country.

When I talked recently to a migrant worker who has been in this country for 10 years, her growing sense of exasperation and anger quickly became apparent.

The 32-year-old Polish woman, Edith (not her real name), was first employed in care homes on the south coast of England. She worked long and hard, picking up other cleaning jobs to help make ends meet. Edith took English reading and writing classes in her own time. Throughout this period she was paying taxes while getting little in return.

She then moved to work as a cleaner at a hotel. A keen worker, she soon advanced to become a supervisor. At the moment she is also studying accountancy at college in her spare time. She hopes that one day she will qualify as an accountant.

‘We are here, we contribute, and we pay our taxes. I do not understand why there are these constant attacks on migrants,’ said Edith, who is fed up with the situation and believes there should be a migrant strike: ‘Then people would know exactly what we do.’

She is not wrong. Migrants have always played a key role in keeping the wheels of British society turning. Some 26% of doctors in the National Health Service (NHS) come from other countries. The NHS regularly poaches nurses from other countries, both within and outside the European Union.

Britain’s schools and colleges are packed with teachers from across the world. The transport system has been a ready employer of migrants since the 1950s, when London Transport went out to the West Indies to recruit new employees. The care sector would come to a halt if it weren’t for migrant workers. Then there is the catering industry: in many parts of the country, it is unusual not to be served by a migrant worker.

Individuals rail against migrants while at the same time employing Polish workers to put up their extension or loft conversion (the construction industry employs many migrants). The phrase ‘double standards’ was coined for this scenario.

Migration is good for the economy. The government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility figures show that net migration of 250,000 per year boosts the annual GDP by 0.5%. This growth means more jobs, higher tax revenues, more funding for schools and hospitals and a lower deficit.

A study by University College London in 2009 that looked at the fiscal impact of the recent migration of eastern European migrants found that they contributed 37% more in taxes than the cost of the public services they consumed.

Migrant numbers go up and down, generally according to the wellbeing of the economy. This is because, in the main, they come to work – not, as popular myth would have us believe, to collect benefits.

The population is ageing in Britain, with people living longer. At the same time fertility rates are falling. Not enough children are being born to replace the current population. Today there are 3 people of working age for every 1 over 65. By 2060 the ratio is expected to change to 1:1.

Academic David Blake estimates that for the state pension to remain viable, there needs to be 500,000 immigrant workers coming to Britain each year. These migrants are necessary if enough wealth is to be generated to sustain the present ageing population.

Yet despite all these positive elements about migration, the public discourse is dominated by politicians promising to cut the numbers. Indeed, the political discourse has become so distorted that the value and need for migration is rarely raised. The departure point of debate is always the need to cut immigration.

A migrant 1-day strike would make clear just how much those coming from overseas contribute to this country. If all the migrants withdrew their labour for a day, many of the services that people take for granted would grind to a halt. A migrant strike would be one way that this vilified group of people could make their point most powerfully.

The arguments for migration are many and varied. As well as the economic benefits, there is the rich diversity that different races bring to our country. But the way that migration to this country has been managed over the past couple of decades has helped to build many of the present resentments that migrant workers feel.

There need to be minimum standards of pay and conditions so that British workers’ pay is not undercut. There also needs to be proper public service provision, including house-building, merited by the taxes that migrants pay. Veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner makes a good point about how, after the Second World War, many migrants settled without problems in Britain from countries like Poland and the Ukraine. There were strong trade unions during those years, and incoming workers became members, so there was no question of them being used as a cheap labour force.

‘The key to improving community relations is to guarantee everybody is on a good wage and nobody is undercut,’ said Skinner. ‘If trade unions were stronger, the friction would be reduced and the gains enormous in terms of harmony between people from various countries.’

So there are many ways that migration can be better managed. This ageing country needs migrants to keep it going. Migrants also add to the diversity and culture of the country. Maybe people need a reminder of all these positive factors – a migrant strike would provide just such a wake-up call.

Paul Donovan is a freelance investigative journalist based in London. You can find his blog at: paulfdonovan.blogspot.com

Help us keep this site free for all

Editor Portrait New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.

Support us » payment methods

Subscribe   Ethical Shop