TConservatives are trying to draw a new dividing line in British politics: wages versus immigration. Boris Johnson used his speech at last week’s conference to position the Conservatives as the highest-wage party, promising a departure from the old UK economic model, which he claimed used “uncontrolled” immigration as ” an excuse for not investing in the people, skills and equipment or machinery they need to do their job ”.
The logic is brutal but simple. Johnson is trying to reframe a supply chain crisis caused in part by a shortage of heavy vehicle drivers and farm workers as temporary pain in the service of long-term gain. In this new tale, the shortage will alienate the UK from the low-skilled immigrant workforce that once came through the EU’s freedom of movement, thus fulfilling one of the key Brexit promises.
On the contrary, Johnson suggests, his Labor opponents are stuck in the past. Lighting at Keir Starmer’s recent suggestion While the government’s temporary visa regime for heavy vehicle drivers should be expanded to 100,000 seats, the Conservatives have formulated a new line of attack. “Vote the Conservatives for a pay raise, vote Labor for mass immigration to lower their wages,” as a government source i put it recently.
However, framing the debate in this way gives the false impression that migration is something that can be turned on and off like a faucet. For conservatives, this framing may be convenient, but in the absence of a broader economic strategy, it is unlikely to provide a lasting solution to the UK’s wage problem, which is largely stable since the 2008 global financial crisis. For workers, it runs the risk of trapping the party in political territory where only the arguments of the right have a chance of success.
Britain is currently discovering that immigration is as much a matter of human relations as it is an economic necessity. Over the past few weeks, truck drivers in EU countries have been patiently explaining to journalists why they find the government’s new three-month visa scheme unattractive, aimed at keeping shelves stocked and petrol pumps. packed before Christmas. “No thank you, Prime Minister,” said Jakub Pajka, a Polish driver. to Reuters in Warsaw. “No driver wants to move for just three months just to make it easier for the British to organize their holidays.”
EU workers lack of enthusiasm For the new visa scheme – there are currently 5,000 places for heavy vehicle drivers and another 5,500 for poultry workers – it was met with quite a surprise in the Westminster bubble, but it really shouldn’t have been. As Yva Alexandrova, expert on migration policy and author of Here to stay, an upcoming book on the experiences of Eastern European immigrants in the UK, told me: “It was quite insulting in a way. It’s like we kicked you out [but] now we need you for three months and then we’re going to kick you out again ”.
In British debates on immigration, it is often assumed that people from less wealthy countries would seize the opportunity to come to the UK, but this is not always the case. EU citizens, for example, may prefer to seek work in member states where they enjoy greater rights, and beyond that, demographic changes mean that the Central and Eastern European countries that once provided a source of migration to the West, they are now looking for workers. (Romania, for example, faces its own shortage of fruit pickers.)
For some, this would suggest that immigration policy must be carefully and sensitively planned. The government’s response, however, has been to display the same sink-or-swim attitude toward the country at large that it displays to the recipients of universal credit. Just as cutting £ 20 a week from people’s benefits is supposed to force them to return to work or, if they are working, to higher paying jobs, the government is now telling us that this fall’s disruption is a necessary step in the path to a higher wage economy, regardless of the misery it causes. However, even on its own terms, the plan is unlikely to work.
Lower immigration does not automatically translate into higher wages, nor can growth and productivity be increased without a serious investment plan in education and skills. The Johnson administration has a poor track record in understanding these issues. She has been largely forgotten in the wake of the pandemic, but when the problem of labor shortages dominated the news, in February 2020, she was mocked by Interior Secretary Priti Patel for stating that the 8, 5 million “economically inactive” people in the UK could fill the staff shortage. – although many of them are students, caregivers, sick people or retirees.
The UK’s post-Brexit immigration system has been sold to us as one in which the country can choose those of the world. “Brighter and better” (a euphemism for the rich and highly educated), and dispense with the services of the less wealthy. In fact, immigration will continue to play an important role in maintaining those occupations considered “low-skilled”, but which are in fact essential to the functioning of the country. Through political election, as recent weeks have shown, this will be done haphazardly and under conditions, such as visas that link workers to a particular employer, that increase the chances that people will be exploited.
There is already a seasonal visa scheme for agricultural workers. has been expanded from 2,500 positions in 2019 to 30,000 this year, mostly recruiting people from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Moldova and elsewhere. A report published in March this year from the charity Focus on Labor Explitation warns that the scheme carries risks of human trafficking and forced labor. The petty cruelty of the UK immigration system, which makes it difficult for many immigrants to access health care or benefits, further limits the options for those at risk.
Regardless, Johnson’s new stance is a potentially powerful campaign tool. With some older conservatives supposedly tired From the “waking war” on the right, the promise of higher wages as a reward for Brexit may be an effective way to hold together the coalition of voters that the Conservatives were able to muster in 2019.
If Labor wants to escape the trap set for it, then it needs to find an answer that refuses to pit different groups of workers against each other. He has recently endorsed sectoral collective bargaining – Industrial agreements between unions and employers that are used in countries like the Netherlands to set minimum standards on wages and conditions. A policy like this has a real chance to make things better for workers, but it must be part of a larger conversation about power: what would give people genuine control over their work lives, regardless of their immigration status?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism