One of the most prominent and ongoing arguments about immigration in Britain has been about the movement of labour – usually cheap labour – from Eastern Europe.
Brexit, quickly followed by the Coronavirus crisis has sent the two sides back into their ideological trenches – this week in a wave of hysteria around fruit-picking jobs across England.
As Covid-19 spread and borders closed, the usual demographic of fruit-picking worker – Eastern Europeans – has apparently dried up. Simultaneously, concerns about potential food scarcity and mass unemployment amongst the “native” British population has lead to a kind of national “Let’s Get To It” attitude, with politicians and the media referencing World War era propaganda about “land armies” and “everyone doing their part.”
There are two main and equally wrong narratives in popular discussion around Eastern European immigration. The first – of the hard anti-immigrant right – is about the vicious invading foreigner; culturally, morally and irreversibly separate from British society. They are “Schrödinger’s immigrant” – simultaneously lazy, benefit-grabbing health tourists whilst still somehow managing to take everyone’s jobs.
The second narrative comes from the liberal centre; the English working class simply won’t do these jobs – so we need these otherwise worthless immigrants to clean our toilets and plough our fields because the average Englishman just can’t be arsed.
This second argument manages to attack both immigrants as not deserving of “good” jobs and non-immigrants as being lazy racists, and is the one usually on offer from condescending Facebook ‘lefties’ sneering at their own class.
The Coronavirus outbreak has proven both of these narratives to be completely false.
However, what has become very obviously true is that the rich are playing games with the income, safety and lives of workers from England – and abroad.
0161 has spoken to several English workers who have applied for these jobs, from different parts of the country. Their experiences were all exactly the same: they were either ignored or told that there were no jobs available.
One reply sent to an applicant in the South East said that there had been over 18,000 domestic (British) applications and that there were no vacancies for at least the next two months.
However in stark contrast to the picture that this response paints, in the past week the BBC has reported on fruit farmers chartering private flights from Eastern Europe, mostly Romania, to bring workers into the UK.
There have also been a slew of stories and pictures on social media – some verified, some not – showing huge, densely packed and certainly not “socially distanced” crowds of Romanian workers waiting to board flights.
So what’s actually going on?
The answer is not surprising; the same thing that has always been going on.
The rich – British and European – and wealthy farmers are not interested in any heroic national effort to help fight unemployment or distribute food.
They are interested in the cheapest possible labour, and the highest possible profit. If this means that English workers – expensive and prone to moaning when things go wrong – lose out, then that’s that. And the conditions for workers from Eastern Europe remain what they always were; underpaid and overworked.
They are the preferred worker for these jobs because they are cheap, unorganised and there is a supply of them guaranteed by the EU, which continues to facilitate the tactical movement of labour to undercut and undermine wages.
This is facilitated by the vastly unequal currency values and economic strength of Britain (the worlds 5th largest economy) and the majority world: it makes huge sense to earn what would be an unliveabale wage to a British worker if you intend to spend it somewhere it’s worth 3 times as much in real terms.
This “pull factor” effects all training and pay levels too – from doctors to farmhands.
The conditions that these agricultural workers face in terms of travel and accommodation are dire – and also perfect breeding grounds for Covid-19.
The working class of England must not believe the great lie being fed to us; that our fellow workers are lazy if they’re from England or greedy if they aren’t.
This is not about the attitudes of any one group of people, it is about the profits of the ruling class. If you’re looking for someone to blame for unemployment then look to the rich farmer, not the farm worker.
If you’re angry about immigration undercutting your wages then look to the EU, not to the desperate immigrant.
We will beat this virus with the unity of our class and our communities. And once we’re done with beating the virus, we can turn our attentions to the people who looked to make profit out of it.