3b. The role of migrants in the British economy

The cheap job, the shitty job, and they’re all…[being done by] migrants, I mean the British people would not do that, I mean they need migrants…England’s been built on migrants. (refugee man, arrived in Britain in 2001)

Part of the benefit of migrant workers for the capitalist classes 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. Without migrant labour, it has been argued that British agriculture could not continue in its present form.[1] For example, in 2008 farmers in some parts of Britain complained that food was being left to rot in the fields as a result of new restrictions imposed on migrant labour from parts of Eastern Europe.[2] State welfare in Britain also continues to be highly dependent on migrant labour. Numbers of work permits issued to healthcare staff from outside the EU rose 27 times between 1993 and 2003. 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.[3] 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% 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, resulting in severe shortages in Zimbabwe’s own welfare provision.[4] There is substantial involvement of migrant workers in delivering social care, with one study suggesting one fifth of all care workers looking after older people are migrant workers, and 28% of those recruited in 2007, many of whom are employed by agencies. The care 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.[5]

2004 saw a significant development in freedom of movement and employment – though not necessarily access to state support in case of hardship – for citizens of the ‘A8’ countries in Eastern and Central Europe, with the further addition of the ‘A2’ countries, Romania and Bulgaria, in 2007. Kavita Datta et al. suggest A8 workers may have been a preferred source of labour, both for their ‘whiteness’ and on the understanding that they would be more likely to return to their country of origin than people who had travelled greater distances.[6] The Workers Registration Scheme (WRS) was established, in the words of the Home Office, to provide ‘transitional measures to regulate A8 nationals’ access to the labour market…and to restrict access to benefits’,[7] and remained in effect until April 2011.  In the first quarter of 2010, 71% of requests by A8 workers for tax-funded, income-related benefits were refused. While on the WRS, migrants had severely restricted access to unemployment, child and housing benefits. This gave these migrant workers a distinct relationship to capital, to the benefit of the ruling class, going some way to explain their preference for A8 and A2 workers over refugees, who, once they are granted refugee status, have far greater rights to remain in Britain and access state support.[8] In 2007, there were an estimated 1.4 million registered migrant workers in the UK, around half of whom had arrived from the A8 and A2 countries since 2004, and somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 unregistered migrant workers. Even for those who are registered, many work in conditions so exploitative as to meet the international definition of ‘forced labour’.[9]


[1] Craig, G. (2007b). ‘They come over here…and boost our economy: The impact of migrant workers on Yorkshire and Humber region’. Yorkshire and Humber Regional Review, 17(1), 33-35.

[2] Surman, W. (2008), 13 June. ‘Government silent as food rots across the UK’. [Online]. Available at: http://www.farmersguardian.com/government-silent-as-food-rots-across-uk/18435.article [accessed: 30 December].

[3] Kyriakides, C. and S. Virdee (2003). ‘Migrant labour, racism and the British National Health Service’. Ethnicity and Health, 8(4), 283-305; Jameson, N. (2005). ‘The reality of capitalism’s immigration policy’. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!(185 June / July).

[4] Welbourne, P., et al. (2007). ‘Social work in the UK and the global labour market: recruitment, practice and ethical considerations’. International Social Work, 50(1), 27-40.

[5] Wilkinson, M., et al. (2009). Turning the Tide: How to best protect workers employed by gangmasters, five years after Morecambe Bay. Oxford.

[6] Datta, K., et al. (2007). ‘The new development finance or exploiting migrant labour? Remittance sending among low-paid migrant workers in London’. International Development Planning Review, 29(1), 43-67.

[7] Home Office. (2010). Control of Immigration: Quarterly Statistical Summary, United Kingdom January-March 2010. London.

[8] Chinweizu, C. (2006). ‘Asylum and immigration: maximising Britain’s economy’. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!(190 June/July).

[9] Craig, G., et al. (2007). Contemporary Slavery in the UK. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Ahmad, A. N. (2008). ‘The labour market consequences of human smuggling: ‘illegal’ employment in London’s migrant economy’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 34(6), 853-874.

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