1960s >> 1967 >> no-756-august-1967

The Wandering Worker

Throughout history man has wandered over the face of the earth: in primitive times, in communities seeking new pastures or hunting grounds. Today people move as individuals looking for work. These movements are studied and discussed by sociologists and politicians who consider “mobility of labour” highly desirable but one aspect of it — the “brain drain” — as disastrous. The problems of modern migration give rise to many proposals of social reform and even to political parties whose case rests on stopping workers from abroad coming in to Britain and on getting out some of those already here. The immigration is blamed for bad housing, crime, spreading disease and undermining the security of local workers. The period since the war has seen millions of workers all over the world moving from the lands of their birth in search of a better life elsewhere. Their destinations have been the industrial centres where boom conditions demanded their services. Many set off from lands where large-scale industry is hardly known so that it is no surprise that problems arise from such dramatic changes of environment..

Britain provides a good example both of the inflow of workers from other lands and the outflow of local workers to distant lands. Western Europe too has attracted workers in large numbers over the past ten years, not only from southern Italy but also from North Africa, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey. British workers, with their long experience of industrial capitalism, find their labour-power in great demand in places like Australia, Canada, South Africa and even in recent years Western Europe.

Posters with such messages as “Opportunity Wears A Thousand Faces In Manitoba”, articles and adverts in the press on the joys of life in Canada and Australia rub home the point. Such is the dissatisfaction of workers in Harold Wilson’s New Britain that in recent years more have left the country than have come in. The housing problem and the prospect of higher wages are among the factors that tempt workers to move elsewhere. There are other factors too. In 1957, after the Suez affair, 160,000 left Britain, nearly doubling the figure of earlier years and the years which followed until 1963, when the number started rising to an estimated total of 170,00 in 1965. The feeling that “the country is going down the drain”, a sort of negative nationalism, is expressed by disillusioned workers who hope that prospects may be better elsewhere. A Canadian official pointed out in a letter to The Times (27.1.65):

   From 1953 to 1964 the changes in the total number of pre-immigration medical examinations carried out in our European offices correspond to changes in unemployment in Canada (Our emphasis).

The other side of this coin is that when there is unemployment in the receiving country, the immigrants tend to be the first out of a job. Estimates say that about half-a-million workers returned to Britain during the slump years of the 1930’s for just this reason. In spite of the rosy pictures drawn by governments touting for immigrants, and [they made] their way home again. An article in The Times of 13 January this year, discussing why immigrants leave Canada, pointed out that of 195,383 British immigrants to Canada in the ten years between 1956 and 1966 more than 56,300 returned to Britain. Some went back to Canada again after rediscovering the joys of working class life in Britain.

One difficulty is that of being in a strange country without friends. Canadian health and welfare services were considered inadequate. The article concluded by remarking that “it is really a question of whether one is sufficiently hard working and adaptable to meet modern changing conditions in a dynamic country”. But, as workers should know, this is a requirement of capitalism the world over. They are also only too familiar with the smear that things have gone wrong because they haven’t worked hard enough.

Australia, with its sunshine and fine beaches, attracts far more British workers than Canada. But the assisted passages for immigrants are not given in order to fill the beaches, but to fill the vacancies in the mines and steelworks, factories, shops and offices. Their energies are also needed to open up new mineral deposits well off the beaten tracks and on the building sites where skilled bricklayers are in short supply. There are snags, of course, as the Daily Telegraph (8.10.66) pointed out:

  Hundreds of British immigrants at Elizabeth, a satellite town 20 miles from Adelaide, are unemployed or in financial difficulties, mostly because of retrenchment in the local motor and building industries . . .
Mr. Bill Simpson, a local estate agent, says ’hundreds’ of immigrants are selling or trying to sell their houses to return to Britain or to move to other States in Australia. The Rev. Ralph Hood, a Methodist Minister, said recently: ’People are on the bread line and sometimes below it. I know of some children who had not been able to go to school because they haven’t any shoes’.

No doubt some are cursing the day they ever read an advert like “Get Up and Go People Are Cut Out for Australia” and the passage that read “Australia offers you a future as big as you wish to make it. Help Australia grow and you’ll share in her prosperity”.

At present the movement of workers from Britain to Australia, Canada and the United States is growing. Many are young and highly skilled. This is the so-called brain drain. Some politicians try to make a moral issue of this, claiming that the country that paid for their training has a right to their services. It’s another story, of course, when doctors trained in India or Pakistan come to Britain to work. This well shows that workers’ energies and skills under capitalism take the form of commodities. It is up to the seller to get the best possible price. That they leave the land of their birth to do this shows that they have no stake in it. The workers have no country.

While some workers have been leaving Britain, many others have moved in. It is estimated that two million immigrants are now resident in Britain, 700,000 from Eire; 350,000 from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa; 400,000 from the rest of Europe; and the remainder from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Africa and other ex-colonial territories. It is the last group which, by the colour of their skin, have been the most conspicuous. Generally, only the most menial jobs have been open to them and they have suffered most from discrimination in housing. The 1964 election saw the immigration issue used by certain Tory candidates as a weapon against the Labour Party. Quite unnecessarily as it turned out; the new Labour government soon outdid their predecessors in limiting the number of immigrants allowed into Britain.

Immigrants did not import the housing problem. It was here already. Like workers coming from Eire, they found themselves barred from many lodging houses and as a result the landlords who were prepared to take them were able to charge above average rents. Workers coming to Britain have settled in areas with low unemployment, mainly in the London area, the Midlands and parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Few have gone to Scotland or Ireland where unemployment is high and where the local workers are themselves moving out.


A further aspect of migration is the movement of workers within a country. The recent tendency in Britain has been called “the drift to the South East”. This highlights the changing industrial structure of Britain with the decline of industries like coal mining, shipbuilding and heavy engineering which were located in the north of England and Scotland; and the advance of light engineering, electronics, motor and aircraft production mainly located in the Midlands and South East England.


This sort of situation was summed up by Townsend Warner, writing at the end of the nineteenth century in Landmarks in English Industrial History:


   Man is of all kinds of baggage the most difficult to be moved. . . .Man is classified as labour’ and is represented as ‘followings’ where there is a demand for labour.


However, this applies only to the working man who has to get his living by working for an employer. It applies to capitalist society where the economic considerations of having enough workers at the right place at the right time overrides all other factors. Homesickness, insecurity, housing problems are all by-products of it. Workers seeking a better life elsewhere represent only a small proportion of the movement of population in recent years. Most have moved as the result of wars and the setting up of new states:


  It has been estimated that the migrations of the last 25 years, bound up with the Second World War and the nationalist movements which followed it constitute the greatest population movement of all time, perhaps a hundred million people have been involved (J. Beaujeu Gamier, Geography of Population, Longmans, 1966).


After the independence of India and Pakistan 17 million people moved: “in 1957 there were 8.4 million refugees in Pakistan and 8.85 million in India”. Nor is there any let up to the problem, as the new flood of refugees following the recent Middle East war shows.


Migration of workers brings problems in its wake but is itself caused by capitalism. Wars and nationalisms are part and parcel of the system, as are the erratic movements of the trade cycle which require a mobile labour force. Wherever workers may move their problems will go with them. The employer-employee relationship remains, along with the insecurity that arises from production for sale with a view to profit.


Migration in recent years, with assisted passages and government schemes for helping the immigrant settle in, has changed in detail from the days of convict settlements and the mass movements following the Highland clearances and the Irish famine; but the essential features remain. For the capitalist class opportunity to make a profit wears a thousand faces in Manitoba and elsewhere. This means millions of workers have to move to the places where their energies can be most profitably used. Welfare states or not, discontented workers still wander the world in search of that elusive “good job.” The answer is not in a new job or better employer but in abolishing the status of labour-power as a commodity. The world would then belong to all to enjoy, instead of as today the world and its workers being at the disposal of a privileged few.


Joe Carter