The Thief and the Cash Cow: Twins from a union of enemies

As the Brexit debacle gets more surreal and confusing by the day, people in the UK are continually bombarded with information and propaganda. Whether or not the Brexit result was ‘about migration’ or, alternatively, was the outcome of a combination of various intertwined grievances, the issue of migration has played a dominant role in both right and left-wing arguments. These arguments shape ideas and create the ‘common sense’ which frames people’s thinking. And it is from these arguments that we can understand, and thereby confront, troubling underlying assumptions that are, most of the time, left unscrutinised precisely because they have already established themselves as an aspect of what their proponents consider ‘common sense’.

One of these perspectives, which the right wing heavily relies on in its propaganda (an idea that is shared from Tommy Robinson all the way to the Conservative Party), is that the presence of migrant workers in the economy lowers wages and impoverishes working conditions. This is what I will call the ‘Thief Argument’. It forms an important pillar of their wider discourse, enabling them to say that they are not racist; they are simply stating the ‘obvious’, since ‘we have to look out for our own people first’. The left, once again in most of its denominations (from communists to the Labour Party), respond in exasperation, and in what they believe is a defence of migrant workers. They say that migrant workers are ‘good for the economy’ because they passionately work, staff the NHS and other vital services, pay taxes, and are disproportionately not recipients of state benefits. I will call this the ‘Cash Cow Argument’.

Yet, despite their vehement proclamations of mutual enmity, these two sides are much closer than seems at first glance. In a manner not uncommon in UK political discourse (centuries of colonialism tend to leave their mark in a plethora of ways), both the left and the right tend to view migrants purely in terms of their economic costs or benefits to the host society. It is basically the same way that you view your car: if you think it’s doing a good job, you admire it; if it is underperforming, you want the problem ‘dealt with’. Yet, surprisingly for some, we have not come to these islands simply to work in your warehouses or to benefit from your patronising ‘protection’; we are more than machines. Furthermore, far from being confined to the realm of migration, these twin perspectives betray a wider conception of the human condition under capitalism as such. This article will attempt to very briefly dismantle these ideas, in the hope that we may at some point be able to forge more social movements that fight for the dignity of both locals’ and migrants’ lives.

The ‘Thief Argument’ is probably my favourite, because of how easy it is to dismantle when you have a drunken conversation at the pub with one of its supporters. Yet it still needs to be confronted because it is strongly established in common discourses and propagated by powerful interests. In all its simplistic glory, the argument states that migrants, either in their quest for jobs and conditions better than the ones they left behind or due to the insecurity of their status, are willing to work for smaller wages and in worst conditions than the locals. This, they claim, creates a race to the bottom which impoverishes British workers. Everybody has heard it. It is propagated by the likes of Nigel Farage, UKIP, Leave Means Leave and sections of the Tory party. Recently it was given an air of credibility by the right-wing, anti-migration think tank Migration Watch UK and by a study conducted by the Bank of England which found that migration ‘impacted wages’ in the ‘semi-skilled/unskilled occupational group’. Its strength is in its simplicity; the argument seems straightforward and ‘obvious’, so much so that it has even polluted some of the Labour party’s ideas, with Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 echoing UKIP in placing the blame with international employment agencies which enable employers to ‘import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy’.

The weakness of this argument is that it ignores the wider social and economic conditions that create our common reality in the UK. To begin with what should be obvious, wages and employment conditions are not set by migrants but by the parliament and bosses. It is true that many migrant workers work in jobs that have low wages and worst labour conditions; yet, as I have analysed elsewhere, they are in these jobs because the UK economic system is designed by default to have them there. This is something that has been going on since the British empire; more recently, the government and employers capitalised on the expansion of the European Union in the early 2000s to provide cheap and insecure labour to many industries that were to profit greatly from it. Indeed, the principle of free movement of the EU is designed, and supported by big business in the UK, almost exclusively for that purpose. Weaker economies are artificially kept in a state of underdevelopment, which pushes migrant workers to the more ‘developed’ economies to serve as workers.

For example, many warehouses and factories rely on agencies to provide them with temporary labour to fill their short-term needs (try to imagine the chaos in one of Amazon’s warehouses during the Christmas period). Employment legislation passed by the UK government allows insecure, short-term contracts which employment agencies use to essentially ‘rent out’ workers to the employers that require their labour. The agency usually pays the worker something around minimum wage (once again established by the UK government) while receiving a lot more from the employer than what goes in the pockets of the worker. The insecurity of the contract enables the employer to dispose of the worker once there is no need for them (while at the same time not needing to concern themselves with nuisances such as sickness or maternity pay), and the sheer volume of industries enable the agencies to consistently shuffle their workers from one location to the next, making profits all year round. On the other end of the equation, many migrant workers share some characteristics that are used by this government-business complex in order to boost profitability. These include de-skilling (the non-recognition of qualifications gained abroad), language difficulties, lack of information regarding trade unions and general labour rights, as well as an initial preference for a quick job to get settled down as fast as possible.

As time passes and networks are solidified, occupations become linked with the people performing them, creating a cycle which reproduces itself (think of the ‘Polish plumber’ stereotype). If you have a look at ethnic community groups on Facebook, you will routinely find British employers advertising vacancies. Studies in the US have shown that the extent of employers’ preference to migrant labour is so deep that they have even drawn racialised, biological conclusions as to why certain ethnicities are better for certain jobs; for example, some believe that Mexicans are naturally suited to agricultural labour due to the design of their bodies. It is not the migrant workers that ‘take jobs’; the reality is that the whole economic system is designed to employ migrant workers in those specific conditions, purely to maintain profitability. In a study on the issue of migrant work, Anderson shows that the arguments that ‘migrant workers fill jobs that British people don’t want’ and that ‘migrant workers take jobs’ are equally invalid. Migrant workers simply accept the jobs and conditions that have already been established by the government and by employers, with existing migration controls playing a key role in creating precarious workers that are useful for profitability. The real culprits of the impoverishment of the UK’s working classes are the government and the bosses, and in these classes, migrant and British workers have a lot more in common than their differences.

While the ‘Thief Argument’ is pretty easily confronted through a basic understanding of how the UK’s economy works, the ‘Cash Cow Argument’ is harder to dispel because: 1) it usually comes, paradoxically, from an ideological source which claims to support migrant workers and 2) because it is actually true, but in its very proclamation is directly counterproductive to the purpose its proponents pretend to support. Yes, the UK economy has been designed to employ migrant workers at specific jobs, and as such it would be unrecognisable (and unimaginable) without them as it is currently structured. Yet how pitiful, weak, and dangerous is it to propose a group’s economic benefit to this society as the main argument in support of their value and humanity? While the right and the far-right hide their underlying racism behind economic arguments, the most vocal forces of the left betray, through their own proclamations, that they want migrants to stay in the UK only because of the benefits their exploitation brings to British employers. In doing so, they inadvertently support the wishes of capital more faithfully than their far-right opponents. The far-right wrongfully claims that ‘migrants are bad because they harm the economy’ and the left replies, very factually, that ‘this economy needs migrants’; in so doing, they prop up the very system they claim to be against. What is common in both of these perspectives is an infatuation with the health of the UK’s capitalist economy and a simultaneous conception of the migrant as purely an economic vessel, a thing, something with no value other than the profits it can or cannot produce.

We need to be aiming for more than this. Anti-racism needs to be much stronger than a call to arms for capitalist exploitation of migrant workers. We need to highlight the common sources of the plight of both British and migrant workers, and foreground the objectives of solidarity, community power, and the overthrow of this economic system as such. The dominant ideological characteristic of neoliberalism is that every individual is no more than their productivity and their capacity to survive in an intensely competitive environment. This perspective has underpinned the state policies that impoverish and exploit British workers just as much as they do migrant workers. It is contradictory and damaging to argue against this system while at the same time proclaiming that migrant workers are welcome precisely because of the role they serve within it.

It is probably true that the ‘Thief Argument’ and its variants played a significant role in galvanising support for Brexit. However, it is equally true that the European Union is a coalition of capitalist nations, warmongers and bankers. Plagued by diminishing power and resources, and not having set the correct foundations beforehand to challenge the twin assaults of both racism and neoliberalism, the wider left finds itself disjointedly and contradictorily arguing without a coherent ideological and political goal. Supporting the European Union in the name of fighting for the rights of migrant workers is incoherent; the policies of the European Union, in conjunction with the those of the UK’s governments, are directly those which keep our countries of origin in a constant state of underdevelopment and force us to seek work elsewhere. These policies stem from the same sources which both throw British workers under the wheels of austerity and which fortify migrants’ exploitation. As a brief side-note, it is equally incoherent and counter-productive to suddenly jump to support EU workers’ rights while ignoring the struggles of non-EU migrants (a fault that the ‘3  Million Campaign‘ is particularly guilty of), who have borne the brunt of the UK’s racist migration regime for far longer and with much more painful results.

We need to organise to develop community power from the bottom up, free from political parties and outside of the dominant institutions which exist to give an illusion of freedom amid soaring inequality. We need to fight for ‘no borders’, not ‘better borders’. We need to fight for ‘anti-capitalism’, not ‘better capitalism’. We need to show how borders are part of the same structures which create the inequality and social collapse that anti-migration Brexiteers are raging against. History has shown that solidarity is forged in collective action. Through initiatives such as Living Rent, both migrant and Scottish workers fight in unison to improve their living conditions, targeting problems which equally affect them both. Radical trade unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain bring both migrant and local precarious workers together in a variety of labour struggles, showing that solidarity is stronger than division.  In the same spirit of solidarity, locals unite with migrants against detention and immigration controls through initiatives such as the Unity Centre. All of these initiatives combine to prove that we as humans, in all of our diversity, are capable of not only resisting the assaults on our living conditions together, but that we are also able to forge new ways of existing, outside and beyond the scope of capital and profit.

We are much more, and much stronger, than our economic roles attempt to constrain us into being. An essential step, therefore, towards organising for emancipation is to completely and permanently expel any traces of the ‘Cash Cow Argument’ from our rhetoric, while at the same time consistently dismantling and ridiculing the ‘Thief Argument’. This will set the foundations for the development of a relatively coherent (different parts of the left will always have important theoretical variations) anti-capitalist and anti-racist movement. The issue is not whether migrant workers are good for the economy; the issue is the economy itself and the plethora of oppressive mechanisms that maintain and reproduce it.

[Feature photo provided for Interregnum by Eyekonique]