Labour ratchets up attacks on immigrant workers

Immigration is once again hitting the headlines as the Labour government has reneged on its promise to thousands of skilled migrants by retrospectively changing the rules under which they are allowed to work in Britain.

Skilled Migrants Programme

Four years ago, Labour set up the Highly Skilled Migrants Programme to attract scientists, IT specialists and others whose skills were in short supply. Many were actively recruited by British companies and all were promised permanent residency in Britain after four years if they were prepared to come and fill vacant positions here.

About 20,000 people have come to the country during the four years of the programme’s existence, only to find that, in November last year, changes were announced – and retrospectively applied – to the conditions that workers must fulfil in order to qualify for residency and continue working in Britain.

According to The Times, the new criteria “put greater emphasis on high earnings and education and less on work experience. It is thought that about 6,000 fail under the new rules.” (‘Skilled immigrants forced back out by changes to visa rules’ by Anthony Browne, 3 January 2007)

Many of these workers sold businesses and houses in their home countries before coming to Britain; now, having served their purpose, around a third of them are being kicked out again, despite all the promises that were made to them when they were asked to uproot themselves and their families. They face the prospect of taking their children out of schools and universities and returning home with nothing.

New rules for overseas doctors

Meanwhile, health professionals have also been hit hard by the new visa rules, as hospitals must now prove that vacant posts could not be filled by British or European Union practitioners before they recommend ‘foreign’ doctors (ie, those not from the EU, Norway, Switzerland or Iceland ) for work permits.

According to The Observer, some 16,000 doctors, mostly of South Asian origin, lured over by promises of specialist training and bountiful job opportunities, are now in limbo, as they wait to see whether the government relaxes the stringent permit requirements.

More than one young doctor has been driven to suicide as a result of this treatment.

“Imran Yousaf was already a qualified doctor when he said goodbye to his family in their village outside Lahore and headed for Britain to start a new life.

“Like generations of other young medics from the Indian subcontinent, he thought he was desperately needed in the UK to shore up an NHS critically short of trained staff.

“But two years later, having used up all his family savings and borrowed heavily from friends, Dr Yousaf, 28, was unemployed. Not that he had been idle in the meantime, having paid for and passed with flying colours the exam to practise in Britain. He was also studying for the finals of a Royal College of Physicians’ postgraduate qualification. Friends recalled how he wrote hundreds of letters each week to UK hospitals and applied for thousands of posts since setting up home in Burnley.

“But Dr Yousaf was learning what many of those who came to Britain in the past five years were also realising – the bountiful NHS jobs they dreamed of were a dangerous mirage.

“In March last year the Government had made it even harder for Dr Yousaf when the Department of Health ruled that UK postgraduates would take priority over overseas applicants …

“Dr Yousaf was found hanged in a room above his friend’s surgery [in Bedford] last month. Although he left no note, beside him was a letter from immigration officials saying there would be no further extensions on his visa” (The Independent, op cit).

In the face of this and other cases (there have been at least two more suicides in similar conditions in recent months), even some bourgeois commentators are balking at the savage treatment being meted out to such workers and their families, and at the blatantly cynical manipulation of overseas labourers into plugging temporary gaps in the skilled workforce, with MPs from all parties complaining that the new rules are unfair.

Unions get in on the act

Meanwhile, rather than condemning the government’s blatant racism and abuse of foreign workers, the trade union movement prefers to get in on the act (all in the name of protecting British jobs, of course).

In response to a call by some IT recruitment companies to close the ‘loophole’ in the work permit system that allows cheap IT workers to be brought in from abroad, Amicus, the biggest private sector union, has rightly pointed to the discrepancy in wages between these foreign workers and their British counterparts. Two-thirds of these foreign professionals are paid less than £30,000 a year, compared with an average salary of £32,500 for a British IT professional.

However, the union’s response to this discrepancy is to call for a review not of exploitative working practices but of the permit system that allows such workers to be here in the first place, saying: “If companies can simply go abroad to find skills they need, they are not going to invest in developing those skills in the UK” (Peter Skyte, national officer for Amicus’s IT sector, quoted in ‘Call to curb influx of foreign IT workers’ by Maija Palmer, Financial Times, 26 February 2007)

Such logic may seem flawless to an unthinking trade-union bureaucrat, but it misses the point entirely. Capitalism, and especially mature, imperialist capitalism, does not care where in the world workers are situated, so long as they can be exploited for the maximum profit. If labour costs are deemed to be too expensive in one country, the imperialists have no qualms about setting up their businesses in parts of the world where labour is cheaper (hence the huge numbers of IT businesses, call centres etc currently being set up in India).

Calling for ‘rules’ to stop immigrant labour coming into Britain will not save British jobs, it will simply accelerate the pace at which capital is exported to exploit labour elsewhere in the world. This is a fact of the monopoly capitalist, imperialist system, and no amount of bellyaching or hand-wringing is going to change it. The only solution is to fight for the overthrow of such a system, but this hard truth is not to the liking of the social democrats, whose careers depend on their success in reconciling workers to imperialism, rather than educating them for that system’s overthrow.

Our tasks

Rather than being diverted down the path of racist and sterile debate over what makes immigration ‘good’ or ‘bad’; what kind of immigrants we should be encouraging; what kind of ‘controls’ would be acceptable, etc, the working-class movement needs to expose the immigration ‘debate’ for what it is: racist propaganda aimed at dividing workers from one another and encouraging them to blame each other for the failings of the system, thus undermining their ability to unite in the face of their common enemy: the imperialist ruling class.

We need to fight for equal rights for all workers, migrant or otherwise, including equal access to jobs and services. Immigrants often have had much tougher experiences of the realities of imperialism; their experience and anti-imperialist militancy should be providing a fresh impetus to the trade-union and communist movements. The best way to stop immigration lowering the pay and conditions for British-born workers, after all, would be to unionise them and fight to have their ‘illegal’ status removed!

All those who are mistreated by imperialism are on the side of the British working class. The miserable conditions endured by many migrant workers make them our natural allies against the British imperialist ruling class. It is only the saturation levels of propaganda and hundreds of years of being duped into identifying themselves by shared ‘whiteness’ rather than by shared class interests that stands in the way of the British workers waking up and realising this.

The job of communists is to help them realise it, not to join in the ‘popular’ chorus of disapproval about British jobs for British workers etc. The sooner we are successful in this, the sooner will come the day of our final emancipation from exploitation by British imperialism.