Tories take aim at migrant workers as Brexit drives immigration to record high

14 January 2024

By George Banks 

As much as the Tories have tried to score propaganda victories with their ‘war’ on the small boats ‘invasion’, they are acutely aware that in order to ‘deliver on the promise of Brexit’, their voters expect overall migration levels to come down.

Ironically, as a result of Brexit, chronic under-investment in training and low wages and poor conditions in key sectors, migration to the UK has actually risen from 250,00 a year at the last election in 2019 to 745,000 in 2022, before dropping slightly last year to 672,000. It is expected to rise again this year.

Given the racist views of their core vote, Rishi Sunak fears going to the polls in the second half of 2023 with this record. This explains their rush to present a new plan to ‘stop the boats’ and bring those numbers down, rather than any rational need to reduce migration.

Panic measures

James Cleverly announced a ‘Five Point Plan’ for reducing legal migration soon after his appointment as Home Secretary. His plan is to:

In addition the Tories want to raise the Immigrant Health Surcharge from £624 to £1,035 a year. As well as paying their taxes and National Insurance, immigrants have to pay extra before they can access the NHS.

In other words Cleverly’s point is to place as many obstacles as possible in the way of migrants seeking to work in the UK. He claimed his new rules would reduce net migration by 300,000 a year.

The previous rules, which allowed employers to pay migrants on the shortage occupation list 20% less than their work colleagues was obviously outrageous and discriminatory. But its scarrping will force migrants to meet even higher salary requirements in order to be recruited into such roles.

This will be combined with a ‘review and reform’ of this list, which currently contains essential workers such as carers, engineers, bricklayers and plasterers, with the intention of reducing the number who qualify and therefore forcing more migrants to meet the new salary requirement. In almost all cases they would have to nearly double their current wage in order to qualify for a visa.

Finally, he has tasked the Migrant Advisory Committee to review the Graduate Visa, which is a two year unsponsored work permit. If this is revoked, migrant graduates will be expected to either earn the skilled worker salary immediately upon graduation or else pick up a job on the shortage occupation list in order to stay in the country.

The predictable result of this will be that many migrants who want to study here will either decide to study elsewhere, depriving Britain of valuable skilled workers and bankrupting universities, or switch to a degree which leads to a job on the shortage occupation list. Even then, the rules may change in the middle of their courses.

Despite Cleverly’s initial assurances that these changes would all take effect from next spring, guidance released by the Commons makes clear that the most draconian measure, stopping care workers from migrating with their families, will be introduced ‘as soon as possible’. 

Put simply, despite the Tories’ oft repeated line that ‘illegal migrants’ should simply migrate to the country through legal means, these new policies will make legal migration significantly more difficult for all but the most privileged. This will inevitably result in more desperate people attempting to enter the country by alternative means, such as crossing the Channel at the risk of their lives.

To add to the chaos, Cleverly appeared to climb down when a Tory Lord asked whether a UK citizen would have to earn £38,700 for their foreign spouse to immigrate and live with them. Of course this only applied to British citizens, but it exposed how much of a panic this package was.

Migrant labour

Migrants are a favourite political scapegoat of the Tories and the right wing media. This is designed to give the impression that migration is not beneficial, or even harmful to the economy. In fact this couldn’t be further from the truth.

An analysis by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2021 paints a stark picture of how dependent key sectors of the UK economy are on migrant labour.

In elementary occupations, which includes cleaners, security guards and hospitality, 31.2% of workers are migrants. For bottlers, packers, canners and fillers, a staggering 60% of the workforce is made up of migrants. In the manufacturing, tobacco and pharmaceuticals 21.3% of workers are migrants, while food and clothing the figure is over 40%. In all of these sectors, salaries are unlikely to qualify applicants for a Skilled Worker Visa.

The health and social care sector relies on migrant labour more than any other sector in the economy. Nearly a quarter of care workers are migrants, nearly a fifth of social workers. In the NHS, the picture is even clearer; 47.5% of specialist doctors are migrants, 40.6% of general medical practitioners and 37% of nurses and dentists.

Despite the right wing narrative that migrants are ‘stealing British jobs’ it is clear that without them, the NHS simply wouldn’t function. When these statistics are viewed in context of the staggering number of vacancies in the NHS (112,000, which includes over 46,000 nursing vacancies) it is clear that the five point plan will heap further catastrophe on the NHS.

Restricting migration in this way is an act of economic self-harm which reveals the Tories utter contempt for the NHS and other vital public services. If they had any genuine intention to save our failing healthcare system, they should be welcoming migrants with open arms, not demonising them and preventing them from living with their families.

Loyal Labour

Keir Starmer and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper are desperate not to be viewed as ‘soft on migrants’. This is reflected in the fact that no official statement from Starmer or the party as a whole has been released since Cleverly’s speech. When pushed, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones said a Labour government would not set an ‘arbitrary target’ for migration, only that ‘the normal level is a couple of hundred thousand a year, but it depends on the needs in the economy’.

Unfortunately, the Union’s leaders’ response to these draconian policies has been equally lacklustre, with only one of the ‘big three’ union general secretaries even making a statement, despite the fact that all three are publicly committed to defending migrant rights and represent union members (including not a few migrants) in the NHS and other targeted sectors.

This was not made by Sharon Graham, as one might expect given that she is considered the most ‘left’ general secretary of the three, but rather by Unison’s right wing general secretary Christine McAnea.

Predictably her statement focused on the needs of British-born workers, rather than making the positive case for migration, making the valid but insufficiaent point that, ‘if ministers… reformed social care as they’ve long promised, there wouldn’t be such a shortage of workers’.

That’s all well and true, Christine, but what about open borders and the rights of workers to live and work where they choose, which is Unison policy? She failed to comment on how the issue related to any other affected sector, making out that health and social care were a ‘special case’.

Fight racism

The reason that the Labour leadership and the union bureaucracy consistently fail to defend the rights of migrants has its roots in the class basis of both castes. Starmer’s Labour has pivoted away from Corbyn’s internationalism and egalitarianism, however insufficient they may have been. The party today relies more and more on the support of the most socially conservative elements of the UK working class, what Marxists refer to as the ‘aristocracy of labour’.

This group is made up of many of the better paid workers, who in turn make up the bulk of the trade unions’ membership. This section of the working class often view migrants with hostility, seeing them as competition for jobs and drivers down of wages. They can even identify with Britain and feel themselves part of the dominant nation.

This is the source of racism inside the working class, taking part of the bosses’ ideology to justify their right to relative privilege, even if those material gains are in fact quite meagre. It is reflected in the failure of the major unions to organise so called ‘precarious’ workers, who are mainly of migrant origin, and was summed up in 2009 by Gordon Brown and Unite leader Derek Simpson in the slogan, ‘British Jobs for British Workers’. The danger is that Labour’s chase for votes in the supposedly racist ‘red wall’ seats this year will revive that slogan.

This must be challenged. Socialists and class conscious workers must organise within the unions and fight for them to actively recruit ‘precarious’ workers and strive to bring the entire British labour force into the major unions, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity. Only in this way can we win the unions to a programme of action which defends and extends the rights, both economic and political, of all workers.

But this can only be the beginning of the battle for class unity and against racial and national oppression. We must call on the unions to launch a political campaign to demand free movement for all workers, for full citizenship rights for every migrant and refugee who comes her from the first day and for international solidarity with workers and oppressed people in struggle wherever they live and work.

In the famous words of Marx and Engles, ‘Workers of the world, unite!’

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