FOLLOWING LABOUR’S GENERAL election defeat, Boris Johnson’s hard right Tory government is taking advantage of his huge Commons majority to press ahead with the key planks of his Brexit agenda.

In order to deflect attention away from the deeply anti-working class nature of its economic policies, the government is appealing to anti-migrant racism and “little England” nostalgia among the more backward layers of workers and the petit bourgeois elements of its electoral coalition who feel the threat to their social status caused by years of neoliberal reforms. These diverse class forces are held together only by their shared xenophobia, so this government desperately requires scapegoats to blame for the results of its policies.

In an attempt to capitalise on the racism of its base to shore up its electoral support and manufacture consent for its neoliberal policy agenda, the government has recently proposed an Australian-style “points-based” immigration system for the UK. However, these tactics are not new within the UK. They merely represent the extension to EU migrants of the current draconian immigration controls which are already enforced on migrants from the global south.

The proposal calls for migrants to be assessed for entry into the UK by reference to a scale which awards points for different attributes, such as ability to speak English at the “required level” (10 points), a job in a skills “shortage occupation” (20 points), and a salary of £25,600 or above (20 points). Some of these categories, such as the salary and educational requirements, are “tradable”, meaning that, for example, failing to meet the salary requirement may be made up for by meeting another of the criteria, such as having a PhD in a subject relevant to the job.

A migrant wishing to work in the UK legally will need to accumulate a total of 70 points in order to be “eligible to apply”. There are, however, four requirements which are not tradable. Migrants must have a job offer from an approved sponsor, a job at the appropriate level, speak English at the “required level” and have a salary of at least £20,480. The last of these requirements appears to be an attempt to reduce the influx of so-called “unskilled labour” into the UK.

The policy document clearly spells out the Government’s motivation for reducing the migration of “unskilled labour” – not merely to allow British workers to fill these roles, but to attempt to reform the UK economy entirely “away from a reliance on cheap labour from the EU” and towards “investment in technology and automation”. This is another cynical attempt to shift the balance of power away from the working class and place workers in an ever more perilous position, forcing them to compete with each other over the last scraps of poorly paid work or face destitution and poverty.

Effect

Talk of automation should also ring alarm bells for workers in many industries, from the postal service to the legal and finance centres. Far from upskilling, a shift of this nature would likely force many into the precarious “unskilled”, low-paid work or unemployment. If robotics, Artificial Intelligence and further computerisation will replace migrant labour with machinery, then the supposed jobs boom for British workers will evaporate.

It is hard to assess what the impact of such proposals would be on the UK economy. However, some insight can be gleaned from the recommendations of the independent migration advisory committee which was asked by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary (whose own parents likely wouldn’t have had enough points to migrate to the UK under the proposed system), to research how a points-based system might work in the UK.

This committee, while not composed of the hard right ideologues who make up our current cabinet, is certainly representative of the class interests of the bourgeoisie. So it is illuminating to consider this proposal from their perspective. The committee has now published its research, firmly stating that a full shift to a points-based system is not recommended.

It pointed out that the UK previously had an immigration system which was “pretty close to an Australian points-based system from 2008 and the current system has evolved away from that because of perceived problems with it”. A particular area of concern for the committee was the impact of such a system on the availability of low-skilled labour, particularly in the social care sector.

While it may be the Government’s intention to replace this so called “unskilled labour” with future technology and automation, it is far from guaranteed that this project will be successful. With the potential of a new recession on the horizon and the full impact of Brexit still unknown, the future of the British economy has never been less certain.

In the short term, there is likely to be a significant labour shortage; employers may resort to employing undocumented migrants to fill this gap. However, the impact of this system will be felt not only by low-skilled migrants but by migrants in all sectors.

A 2018 study of Australia’s similar points-based immigration system showed that of skilled migrants from non-English speaking countries who came to Australia between 2011 and 2016, less than a third had found a professional or managerial job, despite meeting the requirements for such jobs. This demonstrates the racism inherent in such a system, in which migrant workers are forced to take low-skilled jobs to survive, despite having been allowed into the country supposedly on the basis of their “high skilled” status.

Socialist perspective

As socialists, we do not consider this issue from the perspective of capitalist efficacy, but from the standpoint of the working class, whose interests lie in internationalism and solidarity between workers of all countries.

A points-based immigration system could have serious consequences for the working class if migrants, whose right to live and work in the UK depends on their employment, become afraid to join unions and fight for improvements in their working conditions. Migrant workers in the cleaning, hospitality and transport sectors have more than proved their willingness to fight alongside British workers in recent years – and Patel’s proposals are aimed in part at reversing this trend.

The proposal is also likely to result in an increase in illegal migration, as employers are unable to fulfil their need for low-skilled labour from the legal labour market, leading to increased competition and forcing down wages and working conditions for all. Employers can – and do – collaborate with the UK Borders Agency with dawn raids at workplaces to weed out migrant “trouble makers”.

Only freedom of movement affords migrant workers the legal status and confidence in their position to allow them to press their demands against the bosses. The Tories are motivated by the allure of a cowed workforce with no legal rights, while playing to anti-immigrant racism among their base in order to consolidate their electoral position.

Their vision of post-Brexit Britain is a Singapore-style low-taxation economy of financial and digital services with very little social security, where workers are divided and in such perilous employment that they dare not organise to fight.

The trade union and labour movement, including Labour MPs, need to combat this new attack on the working class by declaring their unequivocal support for freedom of movement, in accordance with the motion on free movement passed at the last Labour Party conference. It is rank opportunism to support draconian immigration controls in the hope of appealing to the backwards elements of the working class who have been misled into racism and xenophobia.

Socialists should make the positive case to workers on migration, explaining how their fears around immigration have been cynically used in order to systematically strip away the gains achieved on their behalf by the labour movement. British workers need to understand that their interests are aligned with those of migrant workers, and that only by working together can we hope to defeat the parasitic capitalist class and install a socialist workers’ government.

  • Workers of the world, unite!
  • Down with the racist immigration system!
  • Open the borders!
  • Freedom of movement for all workers!