Below is a speech I gave on Saturday 26 January 2013 as part of ‘Against Racism’, a public meeting organised by Tyneside Community Action against Racism in Newcastle, England. Audio and video were recorded for all of the speeches, and will be posted online soon.
Racism and Politics in British State Welfare – speech by Tom Vickers to Against Racism, Newcastle 26 January 2013
John has spoken about the consequences of the parallel, and substandard, welfare system for asylum seekers, and the growing outsourcing to profit-driven companies. I’m going to talk about the longer history that this is part of, in which the ideals of a ‘welfare state’, based on universal access to the best services available, have been consistently corrupted by other priorities, centred on maintaining the dominance of a British ruling class whose interests, and reach, are global. I’m going to speak on four main topics: the way state welfare has been used historically in Britain to bolster nationalism; the dependence of British state welfare since the 1940s on the labour of immigrants; the role of restrictions in access to welfare services in policing immigration; and finally some of the early evidence of the impact of the present cuts to welfare provision.
More broadly, there has always been a contradictory relationship between the working class and ‘welfare’ aspects of the British state, including institutions delivering education, health and social services. Under capitalism welfare services provided by the state represent both a concession to the working class, and a means of social control. But the British state is not just a capitalist state in general, it is the state of an imperialist country, whose economy is dependent on profits returned from investments in oppressed countries to an extent that is totally unprecedented – with overseas assets in 2011 seven and half times Britain’s GDP. Much of this is loans by British banks: the vast wealth of the City of London is not produced there, all the banks and financial institutions do is move money around, the wealth of the City of London is gathered in – plundered – from the oil fields of Iraq, from the mines of the Congo, from the sweatshops of Bangladesh. This creates a material basis for racism in Britain, it is the ideological defences protecting, to paraphrase Arun Kundnani, ‘our’ wealth from ‘their’ poverty. The way capitalist state welfare has operated in Britain has reflected this racism and helped to reinforce the divide between British workers and the populations of countries that are oppressed and exploited by British capitalism.
Welfare as a means of winning the loyalty of British workers
Historically, a line of continuity can be drawn from the granting of suffrage to working class men in the nineteenth century to the establishment of the National Health Service and other institutions in 1948, in a process of incorporating working class people within Britain into a nationalist alliance with the British ruling class. As early as 1596, at a time of economic depression in what may be considered the pre-history of British welfare, Queen Elizabeth I ordered the deportation of all ‘negroes and blackamoors’, under the argument that Britain’s resources should be reserved for its white citizens (Craig 2007: 608). Early reforms to provide state welfare after 1900 included old age pensions, school meals and public housing. These benefited working class people, but were driven by ruling class concern to appease an increasingly militant working class, to ensure healthy workers for the army and factories, and to limit emigration (Williams 1995: 151–5). The term ‘welfare state’ first appeared in common usage during the Second World War, in order to contrast the British state’s care for its citizens with its fascist rivals (Harling 2001: 154). From the first, it was thus linked to ideas of national superiority. After the war state welfare supported post-war rebuilding by maintaining mass consumption, drew women back into unpaid domestic work under the concept of the ‘family wage’ while war-time childcare provision was withdrawn, and afforded limited concessions to pacify the working class and undermine the attraction of socialism (Williams 1995: 151–5). This was financed through ruthless exploitation of Britain’s colonies. In Malaya, during the same decade the NHS was created the British authorities reduced wages of plantation workers by 80%, and when they resisted the authorities banned trade unions and set up concentration camps.
At its creation, NHS services were formally available to anyone present in Britain regardless of their nationality, and exceptional in this among other countries, but this quickly changed (Kundnani 2007: 18). William Beveridge, the ‘founding father’ of the NHS, made clear the racism underpinning his conception of welfare by speaking in unequivocally positive terms about the British ‘pride of race’, and the need for a welfare system ‘to plan society now so that there may be no lack of men or women of the quality of those early days [of Marlborough, Cromwell and Drake], of the best of our breed, two hundred and three hundred years hence’ (cited in Kyriakides and Virdee 2003: 287).
The dependence of British state welfare on the super-exploited labour of migrants
At the same time as migrants have been discriminated against in receiving welfare services, British state welfare has depended on their labour. The creation of the NHS required workers who were actively recruited from areas such as the Caribbean, many of them working for low wages, as porters or as nurses on low grades (Williams 1992: 164). In common with other parts of Britain, student registers for Newcastle General Hospital (now closed) show recruitment of nurses from Africa, the Caribbean and South East Asia between 1940 and 1962 (Newcastle General Hospital 1940-1962). State welfare in Britain continues to be highly dependent on migrant labour today. A 2009 study found that two out of three NHS employers recruit from abroad, more often from outside the EU, and four in ten local government employers recruit overseas (CIPD 2009a: 8). 15,000 of the 20,000 nurses who joined the medical register in 2003–2004 came from overseas and one third of doctors on the register qualified abroad (Jameson 2005; also Kyriakides and Virdee 2003). In the Philippines, where the government is forced to spend eight times as much on servicing its debt as it does on its own health service, nurses and doctors are underpaid and under pressure to migrate. In Britain, they work in large numbers in positions well below their level of qualification, for example in two hospitals in Glasgow, where some migrants were found to be working for effective wages of £8 a day after agency costs (Kundnani 2007: 64–5).
In 2001–2002 overseas-trained social workers accounted for around a quarter of all new social work recruits, and between 2003 and 2004, there was an 82 per cent increase in numbers of trained social workers coming to the UK, with the largest number from outside the EU. Zimbabwe has lost half of its trained social workers to the UK, and is consequently experiencing severe shortages in welfare provision (Welbourne et al. 2007: 27–34). There is substantial involvement of migrant workers in delivering social care, with one study suggesting a fifth of all care workers looking after older people are migrant workers, with many employed by agencies. The sector is outside the jurisdiction of the Gangmaster Licensing Authority and exploitation is rife, including excessive hours, rates of pay below the minimum wage, deception about expected wage levels, little to no holiday, and cases of debt-bondage (Wilkinson et al. 2009: 24–5).
Much of the work performed by migrants in providing welfare services is very insecure, even where it is direct employment by the state. In 2009, 30 per cent of public sector workers who were born outside Britain were on temporary contracts, and within the NHS the figure was 84 per cent (CIPD 2009a: 8). They will be the first to go as public sector jobs are cut.
The role of restrictions on welfare in policing immigration and increasing exploitation
Racism is deeply embedded in British state welfare, both in terms of denying services and in how services are delivered. In mental health provision there has been a history of damaging stereotypes associating black men with physicality, aggression, and dangerousness, which has seriously affected their experience of mental health services (Newbigging et al. 2007: 113). In many cases black families have been labelled as ‘deviant’ by social workers, in comparison to a supposed white, two-parent, middle-class, heterosexual norm. Desires of black people to improve their social position are portrayed as ‘overambitious’, or as pressuring their children. Images are cultivated of black families constantly on the verge of collapse, while the context in which immigration controls, poor employment prospects and bad housing severely hamper the self-definition of many black families is ignored (Dominelli 1997: 94–8). Where black social workers have attempted to challenge this, they have frequently come under attack, accused of ‘over identification with the client’ or of ‘oppressing the individual with family and community expectations’ (Ahmad 1993: 14–15).
In recent years benefits and pensions have become linked to earnings, which has reduced access for migrants as they tend to spend a shorter amount of time directly employed in the British labour force, particularly those claiming asylum (Sales 2002: 460). Figures for the 1990s show only 62.6 per cent of elderly migrant households in the UK in receipt of pensions, compared to 88.2 per cent of elderly non-migrant households, and only 21.2 per cent of unemployed migrant households in receipt of unemployment benefits, compared to 46.9 per cent of unemployed non-migrant households. A far greater proportion of income for migrants is dependent on stigmatised means-tested benefits than universal benefits (Morrissens and Sainsbury 2005: 650–53).
In social care, assumptions that ethnic minorities, and particularly South Asian people, prefer to ‘look after their own’ have served to justify a situation in which ‘nearly one in five Pakistani women aged 30–pension age, and one in ten British Pakistani or Bangladeshi men aged 16–29, are also [unpaid] carers’, among some of the most deprived sections of the British population. Research into the views of South Asian carers found that in the majority of cases it was people’s bad experiences when they had tried to get support that discouraged them and led them to resign themselves to the fact that it was up to them to care for themselves (Mir and Tovey 2003: 471).
In the recent period, restrictions on access to welfare have been viewed as a key element of the strategy of reducing asylum applications, under the justification that many refugees without status are attracted to Britain by its welfare provision (Bloch and Schuster 2005: 116; Gibney and Hansen 2005: 75–9). Successive immigration acts have removed access to mainstream benefits and welfare support from those in the asylum process, claiming that their needs would still be met by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), despite its own assertions that it was primarily a housing provider, not a welfare service (Grady 2004: 135–8).
Among refugees without status, there are extreme levels of destitution, which have been found to add to the trauma and health problems created by the situations that forced them to flee, and to also create new problems for them, such as mothers unable to breastfeed because of lack of food, or mental health problems linked to high unemployment (Patel and Kelley 2006: 5–6). In December 2005, there were an estimated 300 destitute refugees without status resident in Newcastle, with twenty to thirty sleeping outdoors on a given night, and several thousand more who had had their cases refused and support withdrawn, but who were supporting themselves by working illegally, in situations extremely vulnerable to exploitation (Prior 2006: 7). In a situation where reductions to legal aid have reached the point where proper preparation of a case is often impossible, the status of ‘failed asylum seeker’ is the eventual fate of many refugees (Prior 2006: 15). As of 2009, it was estimated that numbers in Britain in this situation exceeded 500,000 (British Red Cross 2010).
With the exception of those with young children, for refugees who have been refused status, even the limited subsistence and housing support available while their cases are being processed is withdrawn, usually with twenty-one days warning at most, or in some cases as little as seven days due to late notification (British Red Cross 2010). Hardship housing and food vouchers are available to most only if they sign up for a ‘voluntary return’ programme. For many, a return to the situations they fled is an even worse prospect than destitution, and consequently there is a low take-up rate (Prior 2006: 19; Home Office 2010: 17). Even for those with a technical right to support, the fear of detention and deportation forces many underground and therefore out of touch with supporting services. What is more, by keeping refugees without status under constant threat of detention and deportation, these measures deter refugees from participating in public political activity and further isolate them from resources and potential allies in other sections of the working class, reducing their capacity to resist the dictates of their oppressors.
Far from being an issue limited to an earlier period, when relatively larger numbers of refugees were applying for asylum each year, there are indications that levels of destitution have increased since the fall in numbers of applicants. In Leeds, the number of destitute refugees supported by charities doubled between 2006 and 2009 (Lewis 2009). The projects surveyed reported that, although the Home Office claim support is available to those who need it under ‘Section 4’, many who are destitute would not qualify under its five conditions, and of those who do, many do not access it because they are either not aware of what is available or are avoiding state agencies for fear of deportation (Lewis 2009: 11–12). The British Red Cross reports their centres directly assisted 7,920 destitute refugees in 2004, rising to 11,600 in 2009, even as numbers of refugees entering Britain declined, and numbers being deported increased (British Red Cross 2010).
During this period, the state continued to reduce its support. Total numbers of refugees without status who received some form of state support in the first quarter of 2010 was (27,455), 17 per cent lower than a year previously, and numbers receiving Section 4 support were (8,660), down 20 per cent on a year earlier (Home Office 2010: 14–15). At the root of the state’s denial of welfare services to refugees lies the fundamental contradiction between refugees’ claims to sanctuary based on human need and the priority of the British state to fine tune movements of workers to the needs of capital.
The capitalist crisis, the cuts, and the impact on migrants
Part of the benefit of migrant workers for the capitalists is that they give flexibility to the national workforce – they can be brought in when there is a boom and demand for labour is high, and laid off when demand falls, often with fewer rights to complain and under pressure to leave the country instead of accessing state benefits. In 2008, it was estimated that as many as 20 per cent of street homeless people in London were migrant workers from Eastern and Central Europe, who had lost their jobs and had neither funds to return home or access to state support (Homeless Link 2009: 5). In 2009 UK employment rates fell by 2.2% for the whole population, and 3.7% for foreign-born workers, and in construction the gap was higher, 4.0% fall for the whole population and 8.0% fall for foreign-born workers, and the figures for job losses among foreign-born workers are likely to be an under-estimate as the best available data is from the LFS, a household-based survey that neglects people living in temporary accommodation, which many migrant workers do (Meardi et al. 2012: 12).
Some of the cuts so far that specifically affect migrants include:
– Cancellation of several community cohesion programmes such as Connecting Communities, alongside a re-targeting of funding to ‘counter radicalisation’, i.e. a reduction in the welfare aspect and an increase in social control
– Cancellation of the £50 million Migration Impacts Fund that funded many small community organisations
– ESOL restrictions on eligibility and reductions in funding, including removal of the £4.5 million Learner Support Fund used by low-income migrants to help with course fees, and the merger of the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant into general education budgets
– Cuts to funding for NGOs, including a 62% reduction in state funding for the Refugee Council in 2011 and the termination of the Refugee Integration and Employment Service from September 2011 (Collett 2011: 18-19).
The lack of provision by the state for refugees dispersed to the North East has meant that people have had to rely on charities and refugees’ own organisations, and funding for these organizations is now being cut. In the last two years even the most well established organisations in the region have had to severely scale back their provision, and many smaller organisations have had to close. Cuts to funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are threatening asylum seekers’ ability to communicate with British people. Sunderland’s ‘United Community Action’ has been restricted from providing ESOL lessons to asylum seekers by the introduction of charges for ESOL lessons. Most of the organisation’s users are now referrals from the job centre, reflecting a narrowing of language provision to employment purposes. Examples of the impacts of changes to ESOL funding in other parts of the region include drastic reductions in tailored job-related ESOL provisions at the JET (Jobs Education and Training) project in Newcastle, reduced from six advisors to just one, despite high demand, and 70 prospective ESOL students turned away from Middlesbrough College last year.
Cuts are also limiting organisations’ ability to sustain communities amongst migrants. The Manager of ACANE, a refugee-led organisation in the East End of Newcastle that has been widely recognized for its achievements, said:
[A]ctivities which gather us, are no longer there … we [used to] have … food … music, and a chat with your friends … so people can feel that we are united, and we’ve got a space where … they can meet different people and discuss. So those opportunities are no longer there.
At the same time as resources for voluntary and community sector organisations are being cut, many are facing increased demand for their services. For example the Manager of Teesside-based charity Justice First, Kath Sainsbury, reports that asylum seekers are now coming to them for advice at a much earlier stage in the legal process, as cuts to legal aid limit their time with solicitors.
Cuts to government funding for specialist services for migrants and ethnic minorities in general are wide-ranging, including a de-prioritisation of specialist infrastructure organisations on which many smaller organisations rely (Abbas and Lachman 2012) and growing outsourcing of migration management and service provision to profit-making companies like G4S and Serco. This is justified by cost-saving but has led to the kind of consequences John has talked about. Through the history of British state welfare mainstream services have often fallen far short of providing accessible and appropriate services to migrants and ethnic minorities, and now the cuts to resources for mainstream services make it very unlikely they will be able to compensate for the cuts in specialist provision.
Cuts targeting migrants take on a particular role in the context of the capitalist crisis: to force workers from other countries to leave Britain if there is no longer demand for their labour. Already in 2008, there was a 6% drop in immigration to EU member states from both third-country states and EU citizens, and a 13% rise in emigration from the EU (Collett, 2011: 6). Those migrants who remain in Britain face intensified exploitation. Kavita Datta, an academic at Queen Mary’s University of London, carried out research recently with Bulgarian migrants and found experiences of reduced wages, people who previously worked multiple low-waged jobs in order to get by losing one or more of these jobs, and high levels of insecurity and anxiety, that were made worse by their lack of rights to the same benefits as British people (Datta 2011: 574-576). She says:
Given that migrants’ access to welfare and benefits is restricted, periods of unemployment not only exacerbate their financial and economic vulnerability but also push them into taking on any job, rendering them further vulnerable to an erosion of working standards during economic downturns…workers employed in food processing, hospitality and low-wage manufacturing [where many migrants work, are] particularly at risk of worsening conditions because of the high levels of sub-contracting, small workplaces, basic contracts and high turnover endemic in these sectors. Workers may be pressured to work longer hours within the context of a broader intensification of work, to accept wage freezes or cuts and to experience a further erosion of their bargaining power vis-à-vis their employers. (Datta 2011: 569).
In the UK construction sector unions report that migrant workers have been pressured to accept pay reductions of 33% following the recession, and are consistently placed on lower pay grades than British workers (Meardi et al., 2012: 17-18).
I would argue that this is the primary purpose of the cuts overall – not to save money but to force down wages and terms and conditions for employment by removing any kind of safety net. But for migrants this is particularly intense, with a history of occupying a super-exploited position within British capitalism that reflects the national oppression of their countries of origin. This means that in fighting the cuts it is no good to simply demand a return to the services of the past, instead we need to take as our starting point the needs of the whole population and fight for the changes that will be necessary to meet those needs without exploiting other countries – the only genuinely welfare state, in the sense of a state whose core principle is responding to human need, is a socialist state.
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