1990s >> 1996 >> no-1103-july-1996

Book Review: ‘The New Untouchables – Immigration and the New World Worker’

Hypocrisy of politicians

The New Untouchables: Immigration and the New World Worker by Nigel Harris (I.B. Tauris. £25)

In its quest for profits, capitalism is prepared to look anywhere for cheap labour power. One consequence has been the massive growth in numbers of immigrant workers, who travel, (legally or illegally) to another country for the sake of employment. Nigel Harris’s recent book contains a number of pertinent observations on this phenomenon.

One point he makes is the hypocrisy of politicians who demand free trade and the relaxation of market restrictions while at the same time calling for strict rules on immigration. Consistency would require a “free” market in the movement of labour just as in investment and exporting. But immigrant workers are a convenient scapegoat, and can be blamed for everything from unemployment to inner-city riots. Politicians therefore find it all too easy to play the immigrant (usually, race) card and claim to defend the national way of life.

But there is a tension in such politicking, for the simple fact is that developed capitalism needs immigrant workers. As the labour force in western capitalist countries ages, and is not replaced adequately because of low birth-rates, immigrants offer an invaluable source of new, young labour power. They may also have fewer qualms about doing unpleasant work or working anti-social hours than “indigenous” workers have. Harris quotes one witness to a US congressional committee:

    “As our population becomes older, the problem will not be to find jobs for people, but people for jobs. For many years, Mexico, with its relatively young and expanding population will complement and balance our own as well as provide a formidable defence to the attack on our position in world markets.”

Thus capitalism relies on immigrant labour, despite all the anti-immigrant noises its political representatives make. So hospitals in New York advertise for nurses in Irish and Philippine newspapers.

Harris also notes that migration is part and parcel of the global economic order. From the 1970s onwards, for instance, the Middle East oil industry was staffed by a multinational workforce of several millions; the massive increase in oil production would simply not have been possible without such  migration. Large companies often face the choice of importing workers or relocating production in a cheap-labour area. The wheel is now turning full circle, with production of Ronson cigarette lighters being moved to South Wales, as wages there will be lower than in South Korea (Guardian, 25 April).

Migrant workers are often “over-qualifies” for the work they do, and usually have to endure appalling wages and conditions. In order words, they are exploited the way all workers are. The real lesson to draw is not that politicians are two-faced but that, while capitalists wish to divide workers from each other, working people, whether migrants or not, face a common enemy, the world capitalist class and their system.

Paul Bennett

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