Migration and class - an honest discussion

There is a need to have an open and honest debate about migration and its effect on the UK. The first hurdle however is to be honest about people’s collective and individual agency.

Mathew Danaher
10 June 2014

The popular discourse around immigration in the UK is all about how it impacts on local communities, on working class people, on wages, and on the services we use – never mind that it seems to be the one subject where leading politicians, especially from the right, suddenly develop a concern about services and working class people; funny they don’t have the same concerns when it comes to funding, or outsourcing, or worker’s rights.

It’s certainly useful for those currently in authority to look at working class people as the passive victims of immigration – it draws a line between the indigenous and newly arrived working class, it displays both as passive elements in society just sitting here (or over there before coming to sit over here) waiting to have things done to and for us; sometimes in our interest and sometimes not.

Often it seems the left is as happy to conduct this debate on the same ground despite the advantages it concedes to those in power. Talking about immigrants as helpless pawns forced to migrate half way around the world due to the caprice of capital; forced to live in hostile, cold, overcrowded countries that would given half the chance send them back where they came from. Sometimes, in fact, elements on the left are happy to go even further and side with those who claim that immigrants come and do the jobs that the British working class are too proud or lazy to do.

Let’s look closer at the phrase ‘immigration and the working class’, what do the components mean individually?

Well immigration clearly means in this context a load of people from the third world moving to the first world and bring their strange traditions, customs, language, religion, and smelly food with them and either living off benefits in guest houses or sweeping our streets and writing badly spelled versions of our names on the sides of coffee cups for minimum wage. Or it means hard working (or criminal or both) Eastern Europeans coming here to work as plumbers or pick fruit and do the jobs either we’re not skilled for, or are too lazy to do.

What does ‘British working class’ or simply ‘The Working Class’ mean in the same context? Well it means either the plucky hardworking descendents of the people who singlehandedly defeated Jerry, and who are now being forced out of jobs, robbed, given diseases, and terrorised by sly dusky skinned semi human new arrivals, or it could mean fat slothful lazy bloated ‘Primark clad’ benefit sponges who are rightfully being displaced in the food chain by a new breed of industrious, well behaved, cheap, drones. Oh, in both contexts the working class are white.

Think I’m exaggerating? Let me google it for you.

The fact is that the times when you could have a useful discussion on the subject of ‘immigration and the working class’ are long gone.

Any debate on the above subjects needs to take place in a different arena, one that is not isolated from the profound changes to the global economy over the last thirty or so years, one that importantly recognises the fundamental agency of individuals and communities to make decisions and to take action to make change in our day to day lives around self identified needs.

We need to talk about migration, not just immigration. We need to talk about community, and we need to talk about our services, how they are funded, how they are delivered, and who they are delivered by – right down to the individual level. We do need to talk about class yes – but not in terms of how ‘British Workers’ relate to immigration – but how class and migration relate to each other both globally and locally and how they both relate to capital.

We do migration.

Migration has happened for ever, since our ancestors migrated out from Africa and across the world. People in small or large groups made conscious decisions to get up and make a better life somewhere else. This happens even more now of course thanks to massively improved communications; and to the legacy of the great global empires and conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Migration is something we do even in the smallest most tightly controlled areas on Earth. In North Korea, there are Chinese and other foreign business people in the enterprise zones and border towns, and of course North Koreans coming the other way – with or without government permission.

Why am I telling you what you already know? Because these are things that are forgotten as soon as we start talking about immigration and the working class.

The Chinese businessman in North Korea is not an immigrant; neither is the New Zealander living downstairs from you in Putney, the British refrigeration technician working in Dubai, or the Australian working on the Tories election strategy. They’re not immigrants because they have agency. 

On the other hand people don’t talk about the expat from Bengal working in their local Indian restaurant, or the Syrian expat in the bedsit round the corner.

My grandparents were not immigrants when they retired to Cyprus. My dad was not an immigrant when he went out to Australia in the sixties. However they and all the above were or are migrants. They are also working class.

Instead of framing it as immigration and the working class, let’s look at it as migration and class.  

There is a need to have an open and honest debate about migration and its effect on the UK. The first hurdle however is to be honest about people’s collective and individual agency.

Let’s talk about how people can and should play as full and productive a role as they can in the society in which they live. Let’s talk about Filipino nurses in the NHS and British farmers in France. Let’s talk about African care workers in Dewsbury, and English union organisers in Australia. These are the things that are happening right now, these are working people making their lives and remaking their societies.

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