This week I’m reading Martin Whitlock’s book Human Politics, Human Value, which is turning out to be a good one. He has a take on migration that I thought was worth sharing, given the high profile of the topic at the moment.
On the one hand, the political parties are competing to see who look the toughest on immigration, mainly in response to UKIP. On the other hand, the Confederation of British Business were keen to stress the importance of migrants in the UK economy last week. Politicians are saying one thing, and business is saying another.
For Whitlock, the focus on immigration misses the point, as it is a symptom of a bigger issue:
“What damages the economic life of a society is not immigration itself, but the way in which low wages exclude local workers, banishing them to a life on state benefits while impoverished migrants are attracted in their place.”
In an economy that prioritises profits and shareholder gain, labour is a cost, and a successful business pares its costs as best it can. That implies that employing as few people as possible and paying them as little as possible is a legitimate aim for a business. We live in a globalised world, which means that dynamic works on an international scale and businesses will want to locate production where labour is cheapest.
Whitlock’s argument is that by relying on cheap imports from poorer countries, low-skilled labour in Britain is devalued. Wages have become so low in certain sectors, catering or agriculture for example, that it’s not really possible to make a living from it. The only people who can are those for whom those low wages aren’t low – people from poorer countries. Whitlock calls this “importing poverty.”
Migrant workers can pick up low paid jobs because it’s still more money than they could earn otherwise, and they can save or send money home, where it will go further. They are often in the country short term, and are prepared to work hard for short periods of time, putting up with poverty conditions that wouldn’t be acceptable as a permanent way of life.
Since UK residents aren’t able to sustain a decent quality of life on those wages, they end up dependent on the state.
This form of immigration is a “failure at both ends of the migrant’s journey” says Whitlock. The sending country has failed to provide decent opportunities, and the receiving country “only wants them because they will accept wages that are equally unable to sustain family life in its wealthier economy.”
This isn’t a perspective that features much in our current debate, but it suggests that all the talk around quotas and border guards is a waste of time. There are deeper economic issues to deal with, and not ones that are easily solved. The solutions would have to be much bigger in scope, looking at how we value work and how the benefits of growth are shared. It forces us to look again at the corporate structure and the idea of shareholder value, and even the profit motive itself.
- More on this, and related topics, in Martin’s recent piece for the Huffington Post.