1980s >> 1982 >> no-934-june-1982

Running Commentary: Refugees

The aim of the United Nations at the time of its establishment was to “cut the causes of war at their roots”. But because the causes of war are related to the struggle among sections of the ruling class, organised in separate nation states, for markets, trade routes and natural resources, and because the United Nations was not established to end class-divided society, it is hardly surprising that the organisation has failed completely in its objective.

Since its foundation the destruction and slaughter of war has continued unabated all over the world. Even in recent times, over Vietnam, Korea, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and now in the Falklands, we have seen its manifest impotence to control military disputes with sanctimonious resolutions of the “502” variety.

Another aim of the UN was to deal with the problems of refugees. What are refugees? They are walking, sandwich-board-like indictments of the lunatic way society is presently organised. They are millions of people, both en masse and dissipated, escaping from one part of the globe to another. People from Afghanistan escaping to Pakistan while people from Pakistan escape to the West. People fleeing from El Salvador and Guatemala. People on the run from one part of Africa to another. Recently, the UN Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Poul Hartling, told a press conference that:

  In global terms, we can say that the UN is responsible for some 10,000,000 refugees throughout the world at present. Of these, between four and five million are to be found in Africa, between two and 2½ million in South East Asia and the rest in South America and elsewhere. (Guardian 2014/82)

Unrecognised as “refugees” (although that is what they really amount to) are the thousands of people who depart from places like Britain, particularly in times of economic recession, for Australia and Canada to seek a way out of the grimness of life in their country of origin. But for members of the working class there is no escape from poverty by travelling from one continent to another.

Cashing In

Down in deepest Surrey is a firm called Pubjoy Mint, which is in the business of producing medallions to commemorate all sorts of forgettable events like royal weddings and anniversaries. These are then sold to people who are impressed by Pubjoy’s enthusiastic utterances that the medallions are of lasting beauty, intrinsic value and historic significance.

Nothing is safe from this firm. Any day now, they could announce a medallion—which everyone will cherish and show to their children in its unique plastic clearview cover and handsome display case—marking the achievement of three million unemployed.

Meanwhile they are cashing in on other events. Their latest creation commemorates the Falkland Islands Task Force. On one side are the aircraft carriers Invincible and Hermes; on the other the indomitable Britannia stands, trident across the Falklands.

“It is not an approval of war in any way,” said The firm’s marketing manager. “It is to commemorate Britain’s response to what has happened in our territory.” The medallions cost £600 for the 22 carat gold version and £7.50 for one in silver plated base metal.

The Task Force was sent to protect the property and the investments of a section of the British ruling class (the sort of people who can afford that 22 carat medallion) against the ambitions of a part of the Argentinian ruling class. Workers on both sides (who can afford only the silver plated medallion) have no interests at stake in the struggle, although they take their masters’ part in it and will suffer and die in it.

Such episodes are black tragedy in world history. That they can be further exploited by the sale of ghoulish mementoes is evidence of the urgency to end the social system which causes it all. The only fitting commemoration in these cases would be the workers’ strengthened resolve for a basic change in society.

Sick Pay

Most people who have to spend time in hospital leave the place profoundly impressed by the work of the nurses. Often unpleasant, physically and emotionally stressful, unrelenting, usually under extra difficulties caused by shortages and “economies”. And very badly paid, although it would be difficult to imagine a wage high enough to be “fair” for such work.

The Confederation of Health Service Employees states that nearly half of all full-time nurses, most of them in training or auxiliaries, are getting wages which are below the poverty line the level at which they qualify for Family Income Supplement.

The employers may argue that the union has produced these figures in support of its current pay campaign, in which it hopes to raise the government’s 6.4 per cent offer. This is the latest episode in a long battle over nurses’ pay (remember Selwyn Lloyd in 1961?) in which successive governments have cynically exploited the fact that, when it comes to the point, nurses shy away from the ultimate and in their case the frighteningly powerful weapon of a strike.

Because of this we can expect the nurses always to be among the lower reaches of the wages league. Workers’ pay is not a matter of morality, a reward for the job which they do, a reflection of how stressful or how necessary their work may be. If those guidelines did apply in society at large there would be a lot of members of the Stock Exchange and aristocrats starving to death.

Wages are the price of a worker’s labour power and, like any other price, they move up or down in response to pressures like booms and slumps, a shortage or a surplus of the labour power. This is a hard, unromantic reality of capitalism—a system which must first concern itself with its profitability and leave human welfare a long way behind.

Nurses are not angels. They are just another bunch of motivated, essential—and harshly exploited—workers without whom life under capitalism would be even more unpleasant than it is.

Cartoon by George Meddemmen.
Increasing Poverty

According to a report published earlier this year by the Low Pay Unit and the Civil and Public Services Association the poor are getting steadily poorer. The same day the report was issued (April 3) it was confirmed that the salary of Michael Edwardes, the chairman of British Leyland, had been increased last year from £65,400 to £95,500.

The job which Edwardes performs for this modest reward is to keep down pay rises for the workers and to ensure that the company pays out as little as possible on improving the conditions of the workforce—as little, that is, as is compatible with the best efficiency which can be squeezed from the wealth producers.

The week after the poverty report of the Low Pay Unit, the Department of Health and Social Insecurity released figures which showed that the number of people in Britain living below the official poverty line—supplementary benefit level—has risen to over two million for the first time. New statistics sent to a Labour MP in reply to a series of parliamentary questions disclosed a rise from 1.9 million to 2.1 million between 1977 and 1979.

The Labour MP who requested the information was that self-righteous friend and patron of the poor, Frank Field. On learning the facts, Field became very indignant and described the revelation as “alarming”. One fact that must have slipped his mind, what with all that ringing in his ears, is that there was a Labour government in office between these years.

Gary Jay