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Migrants and the economic crisis

In Perspective column by Jane Hardy, February 2010

In the face of the economic crisis, many politicians are blaming migrant workers. But what is the truth behind the racist rhetoric, asks Jane Hardy.

The recession has had devastating consequences for migrant workers. During the boom thousands of workers fuelled the surge of construction in Dubai and Moscow. They provided cheap labour and did the worst jobs in Britain and Ireland - which before the recession were deemed the big "success stories" of European capitalism. Migrant workers are concentrated in sectors that have experienced the largest contractions in output, such as construction, export-oriented industries and the so-called hospitality sector.

Right wing groups and divisive government policies have tried to use migrant workers as a scapegoat. The Italian government, for example, rounded up and detained 1,300 African workers from Rosarno, a town in southern Italy, deporting those without papers. Riots were sparked when members of the Mafia carried out a drive-by shooting and there were pitched battles between these workers and the police.

European governments have responded with voluntary return programmes. Spain introduced a law in September 2008 encouraging non-EU migrants to return home. In exchange for renouncing their work and residence permits and undertaking not to return to Spain for three years, workers who agree to return are given a meagre financial incentive. Not surprisingly, many have not taken up this offer. These sort of schemes encourage the idea that migrant workers, not the crisis, are the problem.

Other governments have been yet more vicious. Since November 2008, 8,000 undocumented migrants have been deported from Korea. In Malaysia 65,000 irregular migrants faced "fast track" deportations and had to pay a fee to avoid imprisonment. Russia's 10 million migrant workers are facing increasing poverty and persecution. In December 2008 a group of skinheads are reported to have killed 20 migrant workers in Moscow. The Moscow Human Rights Bureau reported 113 migrants murdered between January and October 2008.

This is not the first time a crisis has been used to attack migrant workers. In 1973-74 many countries in Western Europe reversed policies that had attracted migrant workers during the long post-war boom.

The fall in remittances - the money sent home by migrant workers - is disastrous. Countries such as Kyrgyzstan rely very heavily on money earned in the Russian Federation. One third of the labour force of Tajikistan is employed outside the country and remittances account for 45 percent of its gross domestic product. Many families "invested" all of their savings into sending family members abroad to provide money but who now find themselves unemployed.

In Britain migrant workers were welcomed by the government when they filling shortages in the labour market during the boom. The government and bosses' organisations argued that immigration created significant economic benefits for the country. In 2007 the then home secretary, Jacqui Smith, spoke of the "purity of the macroeconomic case for migration".

Since then the points-based system of immigration has been introduced to filter and control the number of migrants from outside the EU. Jacqui Smith quickly changed her tune, saying, "It is right in a downturn to be more selective about the skills level of those migrants and to do more to put British workers first." It is hardly surprising that these sorts of comments encourage the adoption of xenophobic slogans such as "British jobs for British workers".

The state and bosses want to treat migrant workers as a reserve army of labour that can be drawn on or dispensed with. However, while some migrant workers have left Britain to return to Central and Eastern Europe, recent reports reveal a much more complex picture. A 2009 Labour Market Outlook survey found that 8 percent of British employers planned to recruit migrant workers, at the same time as broader recruiting plans were at an all-time low. Migrant workers now hold more than one in 12 jobs in the UK - more than double the rate in 1997. According to a public policy adviser, "The idea that migrant workers comprise a marginal segment of the UK workforce that is dispensed with when times are tough is clearly wide of the mark."

A recent report on global migration by the Migration Policy Institute found that although the recession has dampened the movement of economic migrants they are choosing to stay in their adopted countries, despite high unemployment and lack of jobs. Voluntary return programmes have fallen short because workers have settled or simply because the prospects in their home countries are even direr.

Governments have an ambivalent attitude to undocumented migrant workers. They have been responsible for closing the Sangatte camp in Calais, while cleaners from the University of London were arrested and deported for daring to organise a trade union.

But the reality of capitalism is that it relies on exploiting low-cost foreign labour and it is in its interests to keep these workers in a vulnerable position. In Europe the British trade union movement has been to the fore in recruiting and organising migrant workers and building solidarity across borders.

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