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Migrant workers: Ed Miliband’s dangerous rhetoric

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Labour leader Ed Miliband’s latest speech hits the wrong targets and feeds anti-immigrant prejudice. Unite activist Richard Allday responds

So Ed Miliband pokes his toe into the murky waters of xenophobia and declares “Come on in, the temperature is lovely”. His latest comments are but the latest example in the discreditable history of Labour politicians wrapping themselves in the butcher’s apron, claiming the bloodstains are nothing to do with them, and anyway doesn’t the colour suit them.

He seeks cover from the left by claiming immigration should be seen as a class issue. He claims the slogan “British jobs for British workers” is wrong – not because it is divisive and poses the problem as one between nationalities, but because “We cannot tell people things we cannot deliver”.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that “Red Ed” would like to deliver this, but is barred by anti-discrimination laws.

This slogan gained prominence not when Gordon Brown first ill-advisedly spouted it, but when it became the rallying call and slogan of the construction workers around the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike of winter 2009.

That strike was the culmination of a long struggle by construction workers to defend their terms and conditions in the face of vicious attacks by construction bosses. The employers used any and every weapon at their disposal, including blacklisting, bullying, continual attempts to downgrade health and safety, and the avoidance wherever possible of direct employment.

The bosses preferred to force construction workers into fake self-employment, employment through sub-sub-sub-contractors, and the increasing use of agency labour – always (surprise surprise!) at lower wages than the national agreement.

Construction workers were well aware of these tactics – and were well aware also of the governors’ use of migrant labour as a pliant, unorganised (read “cheap”) workforce. This was a class issue – of organised labour confronting employers who were “too often nasty, brutish and short term”.

But Miliband (then and now) had nothing to say about this aspect of the industry. That might entail him in taking a position of support for workers fighting for their rights.

The slogan “British jobs for British workers” gained initial support from some of the stewards at Lindsey precisely because it side-stepped the class nature of the dispute. It was (as one of the GMBU stewards put it to me) “a way of getting white-van man who reads the Sun on our side”.

In other words, it was a diversion from the solidarity needed to win the strike – which everyone involved was clear about – in the hopes that “public opinion” would win the day.

In fact it hindered – rather than helped – the process of winning support, as many trade union activists were alarmed by the potential for division raised by the slogan. This was acutely felt by the best activists in the industry and the second wave of strike action, that summer, dropped the slogan completely, arguing for solidarity on the clear basis that the fight was for the rate for the job, not the race of the worker.

Many activists in construction who organised in support of the Lindsey strikes were involved in the recent electricians’ fight against wage cuts. Overcoming the initial inertia of their union’s response, and lack of organisation on many sites, their successful six-month campaign of protests, demonstrations and unofficial picket lines eventually forced the bosses to retreat.

Throughout these six months, Ed Miliband had not one word of support to offer (nor did the press print one word on the campaign). This was despite (or more probably because) this was a clear class response to the “brutish labour market” Miliband claims to oppose.

Look at the solutions Miliband has to offer: “In sectors where there is a problem, every medium and large employer that has more than 25% foreign workers … should have to notify Jobcentre Plus”.

He wants to “reframe” the debate, by reforming a “brutish labour market” that encourages the “excessive” use of low-paid immigrants. So what level of cheap labour is acceptable, Ed?

The problem is low pay, not the nationality of the labour. But Miliband cannot bring himself to address that, because it would not go down well with the employing class.

He intends to review immigrants’ access to benefits – which will make them more desperate to take any job, at any wage, because the alternative will be to starve. That will really sort out the problem of low wages!

Miliband argues that immigration should be seen as a class issue, because the lower-paid and unskilled suffer disproportionately. This has nothing to do with immigration. Electricians are not “unskilled” – and, as a result of their successful fight against wage cuts, they are not low-paid either – but it has everything to do with mass unemployment, anti-trade union laws that prevent effective industrial action, and a continually craven ducking of the arguments by people (who earn more than we could dream of) claiming to represent us.

Immigration should be seen as a class issue. Overwhelmingly, working class immigrants face an uphill struggle against discrimination, exploitation and isolation.

As long as we stand back and view them as the problem, we will have disunity in our fight for decent jobs, pay and conditions. We will be too busy fighting among ourselves to see the real enemy, the employers, laughing all the way to the bank.

And they are the only ones who will benefit from Labour’s sad attempt to crawl into bed with the nationalists and backwoodsmen of the anti-immigrant lobby. Not one low-paid temporary or agency worker will benefit from any of Miliband’s proposals.

Not one casual catering worker will be taken on as permanent staff. Not one gangworker chopping cabbages or lifting bulbs will have their conditions improved one jot.

Well done Ed. You are succeeding in convincing the establishment that you are safe. And don’t you look dashing in all that red, white and blue.

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