ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, April 1977


Joanna Rollo

Immigration Today


From International Socialism (1st series), No.97, April 1977, pp.19-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The last year has seen a massive racialist offensive against black workers in Britain. In International Socialism 96 Joanna Rollo told some of the history of Jewish and Irish immigrant workers in Britain. In the second part of her article on immigration she analyses the role of immigrant workers in the capitalist economies of Western Europe today.

‘What distinguishes this migration from others in the past is that it is temporary. Only a minority of workers are permitted to settle permanently in the country to which they have come. Their work contracts are usually for one year, or at the most, two. The migrant worker comes to sell his labour power where there is a labour shortage. He is admitted to do a certain kind of job. He has no rights, claims, or reality outside his filling of that job. While he fills it, he is paid and accommodated. If he no longer does so he is sent back to where he came from. It is not men who immigrate but machine minders, sweepers, diggers, cement mixers, cleaners, drillers, etc. This is the significance of temporary migration. To re-become a man (husband, father, citizen, patriot) a migrant has to return home. The home he left because it held no future for him.’ [1]

IN MARCH the Swiss Government held a national referendum. The question was whether to expel hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. About half the electorate voted. Most of them opposed the motion. It’s not the first time such a proposal has been put to the referendum in Switzerland.

A third of the total workforce and 40% of factory workers in Switzerland are immigrants from Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia. They are in Switzerland because they have been recruited to come and work there. They are recruited for a specific job, and all of them are on contracts from 9 months to one year. If they are sacked or made redundant they must leave the country. They are not allowed to bring their families with them. A woman seasonal worker who bears a child while in Switzerland must either take or send it home within a few weeks of its birth.

After the Second World War Switzerland was in a more or less unique situation. Throughout Europe industrial centres lay in smoking ruins, but in Switzerland the productive apparatus was intact and Swiss industry could respond to the high demand for manufactured goods in the rest of Europe. Foreign workers were recruited to make the export boom possible. At first the Swiss Government expected the boom to be short-lived. It put the workers on short-term contracts, to stop them settling in Switzerland and to make sure they could be got rid of when they were no longer needed. But the boom continued during the 1950s, so they continued to recruit foreign workers and some of the restrictions on settlement were relaxed. By the 1960s they found that Swiss industry was backward because it was labour intensive.

The native population was increasingly better off, most Swiss workers were in skilled and managerial or professional jobs and only those who were too old or too poorly trained stayed in the manual jobs alongside the foreign workers. The increasingly affluent population meant an increasing demand for consumer goods. On the other hand productivity could only be increased by investment in labour saving techniques and new plant and equipment. The capital necessary for that investment was partly obtained by decreasing the numbers of foreign workers, and therefore the amount spent on them.

In 1964 the government imposed restrictions on recruitment of foreign labour. Fewer workers were to be allowed in and once in Switzerland the numbers that could be employed in each factory was limited. This suited the smaller less productive firms who feared that the free movement of foreign workers in the labour market would lead to a wages explosion and force them out of business. But it was not in the interests of the bigger firms since they could not expand by recruiting workers from the smaller companies. By 1970 immigration policy was changed to suit the needs of the big companies. Entry was still tightly controlled, but the numbers of contracts for seasonal and short-term workers were increased, and immigrant workers already in Switzerland were allowed to apply for jobs other than those they had been recruited for.

Switzerland is a tourist centre, a diplomatic centre and a centre for high finance. It is, if the travel agency brochures are true, a picturesque land of mountains, chalets, cuckoo clocks and eidelwiess. But the Switzerland of the immigrant worker is a dark dank and miserable hellhole. Deep underneath Geneva a new drainage system is being built. It is being tunnelled through wet earth and shingle. Every ten metres tubes are jammed into the face and solidifying chemicals injected to hold back the water. If the water breaks through it can come in at the rate of 120 litres a minute. The air in the tunnel is stale because the ventilating system doesn’t work properly and if the mole is drilling a grey powder, fine as talc, lines the skin, hair, nostrils throat and lungs.

There are 100 men working on the tunnel. The two engineers and one of the foremen are German. All the workers are immigrants – from Yugoslavia, Spain, and some Italians from the south of Italy.

The fine dust caused by drilling sandstone can cause silicosis. Accidents happen because of misunderstandings, since the gangs are never all of the same nationality and they may only know a few words between them, because of the lack of space, the noise, poor lighting and the roofing collapsing. Above all accidents happen because as far as the contractors are concerned the migrant workers are expendable. They are on nine-month contracts. When the contract finishes they return home and reapply for another nine months tunnelling. There are plenty of men in Italy, Yugoslavia and Spain to replace those injured and killed.

‘At the beginning of 1973 four Spanish workers demanded better work conditions and went out on a half day strike. By themselves. They were immediately sacked. Without a job they had no right to remain in the country. They were forced to return to Spain. Their record as undesirable "extremists" was doubtless made known to the Spanish authorities. The Swiss trade union did nothing to protect them.

‘As a result of the Spaniards’ action, however, a commission of four men, including a trade union representative, came to inspect the tunnel working conditions. It declared them safe.

‘During the remainder of the same year – with a work force which never exceeded one hundred – two workers were killed, a third had both his legs smashed (and was still in hospital months later), a fourth had his spine seriously damaged, a fifth lost his hearing because of an explosion and there were numerous minor injuries.’ [2]

There are now around 15 million migrant workers in Europe. They have come from the Mediterranean countries: Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Yugoslavia; from North Africa and the former French colonies in West Africa. From India, Pakistan and the West Indies; from Surinam and the Antilles and Indonesia (all former Dutch colonies). They have come from the poor countries to work in the advanced economies of Western Europe.

‘Turkey in 1967 had a population of 34 million growing at the rate of 3 per cent each year. 80% of the population were peasants. 90 per cent of the agriculture was entirely unmechanised. Of the industry which existed 60% produced only food, wine and tobacco ... there were one million unemployed. And about four million in the countryside who could only find work at harvest time. Each year three hundred thousands more workers came on to the Labour market. Nearly 70 per cent of the population could neither read nor write. By 1967 there were about a quarter of a million Turkish migrants working abroad. Today (1974) there are more than three times that number.’ [3]

Immigrant workers in Europe

Immigrant Workers in Europe

Source: The Economist, 9 August 1975, p.23

They have migrated from countries like Algeria, where around one and a half million people are unemployed on the land and thousands more in the cities. Where the social conditions are terrible and there is a scarcity of essential goods, soaring prices and a wage freeze. Where only 5% of the construction budget is spent on housing and most people live in slum shanty towns (bidonvilles) around the big cities. Where most industrial development (62% of investment in the first plan) is in heavy industry in plant and equipment, which does not create many jobs. [4] Many governments in the ‘developing’ countries encourage this type of investment. In Uganda investing firms can write off 120% of capital investment against taxation. But there are no concessions for creating jobs.

In 1973, following a wave of racialism in France, an Algerian worker, the father of five children, who had been working in Eastern France since 1962 wrote a letter to the personnel director of an Algerian state industrial organisation, requesting a job as an aid-mechanic. His letter revealed both the eagerness of these immigrant workers to return home and the psychological stress in France. ‘We are fortifying the hand that is oppressing us’, the worker concluded. But the director, replying two months later, turned down the request on the grounds that ‘in order to be reintegrated into our factory you must possess the following qualifications: a certificate of primary education, and a certificate of professional training in general mechanics’. In a word, no employment.
Source: Mahfound Bennoune, The Magiribin Migrant Workers in France, Race & Class, Vol.XVII No.1, Summer 1975, p.55.

The countries to which the immigrants come give ‘aid’ to the countries they come from. But 90% of American ‘aid’ and 48% of British ‘aid’ is tied – it must be spent on imports from the country which gave it. So in the countries who receive ‘aid’ it is cheaper to build roads with earthmoving equipment than to use men with picks and shovels. In 1973 the World Bank’s magazine Finance and Development estimated that it would cost the rich countries sixty billion dollars in aid to create enough jobs in the developing world for all the migrant workers in Europe. [5]

Contract labour in Germany

‘In every way foreign workers help us to earn our daily bread... Although foreign workers are in Germany because at home they live in indigent circumstances, Germany needs them urgently. They are dependent on us. But we are even more dependent on them , otherwise they would not be here,’ said the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, in 1973. [6]

THERE ARE more foreign workers in Germany than in any other country in Western Europe: around 2.5 million making up 10-11% of the workforce. Migrants are called ‘Gastarbeiter’ (guest workers). Most of them work in manufacturing industry, particularly in car manufacture and there are high proportions of migrant workers in the dirtiest and dangerous industries. Eighteen per cent of the labour force in asbestos processing are migrants, as are sixteen per cent in textiles and clothing; 19% in the extraction and processing of rock and earth; and 22% in the construction industry. Nearly all migrant workers hold manual jobs – 88% of them in 1973. [7] Foreign workers in the big firms like Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen and Bosch live in ‘housing’ provided by the bosses – special camps, often surrounded with barbed wire, in barrack like quarters with three or four single men to a room. They cannot bring their families with them unless they can provide ‘suitable’ housing. ‘Suitable’ housing is of course just not available.

Bosch is a world wide car component manufacturer, Lucas Electrical’s main rival in Europe. In Stuttgart, where the company is based, its manual workforce is now 25% immigrant and the company plans to increase it to 50%. Waldrof, Bosch’s personnel chief believes in a free supply of immigrant workers:

‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We had immigrants coming in throughout the sixties and we had fast economic growth and little inflation.’ [8]

The overall rate of turnover in the workforce in Siemens, the German electrical multinational is 22% for native workers and 54% for foreign workers. Foreign workers were employed at minimum wages for the first year. At the end of the year the contract could be renewed only by mutual consent and by a raise in salary in consideration of the workers’ experience. Instead of increasing his salary the company ended the worker’s contract.

‘During their first year foreign workers were extremely obedient and hard working. They even refrained from membership in trade unions and in all labour activity. At the end of their first contract year, however, many bargained with the firm for a wage raise and became aware of their rights to demand such a raise. Needless to say, these were undesirable demands from the viewpoint of the firm.’ [9]

On the assembly line at Fords in Cologne 40% of the labour force are migrants. The ‘Taunus’ is built in a factory where the assembly lines are 90% Turkish immigrant workers. In the Cologne plant in 1973 Fords refused to re-employ 300 Turkish workers on the grounds that they were late in returning from their holidays. In reality they had imposed a speed up in the track to maintain productivity with fewer workers. The Turkish workers went on strike to reinstate those sacked. The strike lasted five days and resulted in the strike leaders being arrested. Although nearly half of the workers were Turkish, only five were members of the 53 man factory council. [10] The German workers did not support the strike and the union denounced the strikers.

There were few foreign workers in Germany after the First World War – in 1932 about 100,000 in industry and 42,000 in agriculture. But while the Nazis were in power, Hitler forcibly brought millions of civilians and prisoners of war from the occupied countries to man the war industries. After World War Two German industry could meet the demand for unskilled labour through the twelve million refugees from East Germany. In 1955 this source was exhausted and from then on the German Government signed a series of recruitment agreements – with Italy first in 1955 followed by Spain and Greece in 1960; Turkey in 1961; Morocco in 1963; Portugal in 1964; North Africa in 1965; and Yugoslavia in 1968.

What has been developed in Germany is a sophisticated contract labour system. Workers are recruited for a certain job with a certain employer for a certain period of time, usually one or two year contracts. When the contract expires, those workers are either re-hired if they are needed, or sent home if they are not needed. They can of course be sacked and sent home at any time during their contract. These workers have scarcely any rights. A court ruling in Munich four years ago stated that since ‘guest-workers’ only stay temporarily in Germany they cannot be regarded as ‘part of the population’. [11] Vicious anti-immigration laws have been passed (the Foreigners’ Laws). These make illegal political organisation among the factories and elsewhere, they also make illegal any meeting at night of more than three people (which can include parties). These laws were first used after the Munich Action of Black September. Thousands of Palestinian workers and students were rounded up in the early morning and flown out of the country. In many cases their families and friends did not know what had happened to them until, weeks later, they received letters from Tripoli, Damascus and Cairo.

Now, with over one million out of work for the last three winters, ‘even Germans are once again applying for jobs as dustmen.’ [12] In 1973 a ban on the recruitment of foreign workers was imposed and numbers have been declining since then. Many of the workers were just made redundant, but many probably left without being sacked, as overtime was cut and short-time working introduced their ability to save is being steadily eroded. And since April 1975 immigrants are not allowed to move to areas where foreign workers make up more than 12 per cent of the labour force. Then years previously the German Institute for Economic Research had commented:

‘Although opposition to the continual inflow of foreign workers is to be found here and there it is necessary to realise that with a labour market cut off from other countries the pressure of wages in the Federal Republic would become considerably stronger, due to increased competition by employers for the domestic labour potential. This increased pressure of costs could hardly fail to affect the competitivity of West German enterprises, both in the export markets and at home.’ [13]

It could be more than coincidental that some of the major German firms are now talking about expanding overseas production to cut labour costs. [14] According to the West German Federation of Employers:

‘Some of out traditional fields like manufacturing heavy machinery for export, are under competitive pressure from labor-cheap countries.’

Siemens now employ 100,000 workers abroad, compared to only 40,000 ten years ago, and are looking for ways to cut expenditure on wages,

‘We rank only behind the United States and Sweden in domestic labour costs, and this winter’s seven per cent settlements in the metal working industry are obviously going to insure that we keep our place there.’

Volkswagon is already the biggest car manufacturer in Brazil, with a workforce of 40,000 which produced 419,000 Beetles in 1974. It sends gear boxes and engines back for assembly in West Germany and exports to 32 other countries from Brazil. [15] With the crisis pushing the German working class to defend its living standards and state restriction of the import of cheap labour, more of the major German companies may try to increase production overseas.

Since 1973 the crisis has resulted in stricter immigration controls being introduced by most European countries. In both Germany and Switzerland this was done more or less effectively through the existing mechanism for controlling immigration. The situation in France was slightly different.

‘Illegal’ Immigration – Slave Trade of the Seventies

‘With an active French population of 40 per cent,’ declared Massanet, the director of population in Ministry of Labour, on French television in 1968, ‘how could we ensure in France the standard of living of the population; ensure the retirement of the elderly; the charges of the students; ensure the social investments for children; without immigration.’ [16]

EVERY IMMIGRANT to Germany and Switzerland must have a working visa when they enter. There are, as there are in every country, numbers of ‘illegal’ immigrants. It is estimated that 10,000 children of migrant workers are living illegally in Switzerland. But ‘illegal’ immigrations is officially outlawed and those discovered are immediately deported. The situation in France was different because until 1974 there was an official ‘unofficial’ allowance for illegal immigration. Between 1964 and 1974 a ‘regularisation’ policy made it possible for immigrant workers to enter as tourists and if they could find a job and accommodation and get their employer to support them they could apply to be ‘legalised’. They have, of course, no rights to legalisation – it’s up to the discretion of the authorities. The result of this policy was that in 1968, 82 per cent of all new workers in France were technically illegal but subsequently legalised. The policy also played into the hands of the modern slave-traders who traffic in ‘illegal’ immigrants.

‘In July 1973 a lorry broke down near Aix-les-Bains, only a short distance into France from the Mont Blanc tunnel and the Italian frontier. It was supposed to be carrying sewing machines. It was carrying 59 Africans from Mali. They were packed like sardines into the lorry, with little food, water or air, and only piles of straw for sanitation. They had paid a total of $10,000 to be smuggled into France. The scandal hit the headlines in the French press and investigations, by reporters uncovered more details of this slave trade. Le Nouvel Observateur found one trafficker who was making over $150,000 a year on his African labour force. He was hiring them out at 18 Francs an hour to oil companies and paying them 6.6 francs an hour. He did not bother with holiday pay, sickness benefit or social security.’ [17]

Since 1968 it has become more and more difficult for immigrants to regularise their status and in 1974 this policy was stopped altogether. There were an estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants in France that year and these are now permanent law-breakers. If they are discovered they will be deported. Sixty-five per cent of African workers in France are employed in the automobile and textile industry. A UN report examined the situation in the building industry and found a slave labour force:

‘The building sector is one of the rare sectors which has developed networks of organisation from the recruitment of the workers in Africa to their work and their housing on building sites, sites which have all the aspects of real camps and where the laws are openly flouted; ridiculously low wages (sometimes agreed on in Africa when the employee does not yet have a benchmark to assess the pay offered); food and transport provided by the firm which charges excessively for its poor quality services; housing in huts; limitation of visits to certain hours, and the prohibition of women; suppression of all rights of trade unions and political expression.’ [18]

Around a third of the 1.8 million immigrant workers in France in 1973 came from North Africa – Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. As in Germany, there is a high percentage of foreign workers in the car plants. In Renault 25 per cent of the workforce of 95,000 are immigrants, but in the workshops immigrants make up 40 per cent of all workers.

Since French immigration laws allows employers to hire North African workers only in industrial sectors where there is a native labour shortage, these workers automatically get the dirtiest, most dangerous and lowest-paid jobs. In October 1973 the French Ministry of Labour published a preport which showed that 92 per cent of all foreign workers had manual jobs. [19] A high proportion of manual immigrant workers are also found in the health service, and in the rubber, chemical and asbestos industry.

As an official report put it; the immigration of foreign workers to France has offered:

‘... recruitment opportunities for certain sectors of activity like building, and public works, or for certain laborious jobs situated at the base of the hierarchy, abandoned by our nationals (sic) whose labour has been transferred to more highly qualified jobs with an increase in productivity.’ [20]

General Role of Immigrant Labour in Western Europe

THE ABILITY to draw on a large pool of cheap unorganised migrant labour has certainly contributed to economic growth in Western Europe. In the boom years of the 50s all these countries, faced a shortage of labour, a shortage which was also partly caused by the holocaust of the Second World War in which 50 million people lost their lives. There are a number of ways in which the capitalist can increase the supply of labour: by lengthening working hours and/or increasing the activity rate of the population, by reducing the numbers of workers needed to maintain or increase productivity through the introduction of labour saving techniques of production.

‘In recent years the indigenous labour force in manufacturing sectors in many West European economies have been declining so fast that there has been little if any net increase, even after allowing for inflows of immigrant labour’. [21]

This is a long term project and applies only to those companies big enough to make the necessary capital investment. It is this process that causes unemployment and a falling return on investment. Larger companies can also shift labour-intensive production to countries with cheap labour, this also is a longer term operation. The biggest companies use all these means, and in Germany and Switzerland particularly they have also relied heavily on immigrant labour.

In January 1971, in a factory in Lyons a North African worker was smashed to pieces by the chain of a worn out machine. On the specific order of the management the broken chain was hidden and replaced with anew one. The workers were threatened with the sack if any of them told the investigators the truth. But when the police turned up at the factory one of the workers defied the management, told them what had happened and showed them the broken chain. The North African workers went on a six-hour strike in protest at their working conditions. A second strike was organised in February 1972. It lasted 22 days and shook the working class movement. In the spring of 1973 three hundred and seventy assembly workers (mostly Algerians) at the Renault plant outside Paris went on strike. They were demanding equal pay for equal work. The strike started as a spontaneous wildcat and was immediately joined by 12,000 semi-skilled and manual workers, 9,000 of them immigrants. The strike resulted in a partial victory for the Renault workers.

In June 1973, a french fascist organisation, Ordre Nouveau organised a meeting which openly violated French ‘law’ against racist propaganda. A revolutionary French Organisation, the Ligue Communiste, mounted a counter-demonstration. As a result of the clashes with the fascists, the Ligue was banned and one of its leading members, Alain Krivine, was jailed. But racist papers such as Minute continued to denounce, without legal repercussions, the ‘waves of syphilis-beaming, rape prone undesirables.’ Then, in August, a mentally disturbed Algerian labourer, who had suffered brain damage after a fight with a French fascist, killed a bus driver in Marseilles. The French press plunged into hysterical racism. The biggest newspaper in the South of France, Le Meridional, screamed for vengeance. ‘We have had enough of Algerian thieves, Algerian thugs, Algerian braggarts, Algerian trouble-makers, Algerian syphilitics, Algerian rapists, Algerian pimps, Algerian lunatics, Algerian killers.’ Blood they wanted and blood they got. In the following month twelve Algerian workers were murdered.
Source: M. Bennoune, The Magribin Migrant Workers In France, in Race and Class, Vol.XVII No.1, September 1975.

To meet the demands for labour in expanding industry, particular sorts of jobs have to be done: the lowest paid jobs, the most dangerous jobs; the dirty jobs; the most boring jobs; the jobs that mean working night shifts to keep the wheels of industry turning so that productivity can be extracted to the full, and workers who can be brought in on contracts and can be sacked when they are no longer needed.

There are other benefits to be gained from using immigrant labour.

It helps the employers to maintain wage differentials. The recruitment of large numbers of untrained workers, lacking industrial experience, often poorly educated increases the supply of unskilled labour at a time when it would otherwise decline as workers were drawn into better jobs. Instead of improving wages and conditions in the jobs that have been vacated, the employers simply draw on workers in a very weak position who have little ability of opportunity to improve their wages.

‘Contract labour is labour without rights. It is provided by workers who have not even the slender advantages won for them by their class over the last 150 years. It is labour without trade unions, without votes, without proper insurance, without even the right to live as families. This labour has no check on the most brutal demands of the employers ... The dangers of contract labour for the organised labour movement know no bounds. If one section of the working population is under threat of deportation the effect is to weaken not only their own ability to fight for better wages and conditions but that of the entire working-class movement.’ [22]

Most immigrants in Europe have the right to join trade unions, but in France and Switzerland they are not allowed to hold official posts. In every country they are barred from political activity: it is left to the discretion of the authorities to decide what constitutes political activity. In Germany 70 per cent of the migrant workers are unorganised – in France and in Switzerland 90 per cent are unorganised. The biggest union in Switzerland, the SGB (Schweizerischer Gewerkschaftsbund) has been campaigning since the mid 1950s for a reduction in the number of foreign workers. At the same time it is trying to recruit those workers. Its lack of success probably reflects foreign workers’ suspicions about the Swiss union’s intention of looking after their interests. After all, if the SGB had its way they wouldn’t be there in the first place. The SGB is afraid that the large numbers of immigrant workers may erode the ‘Swiss national character’.

‘The Unions appeal for
improved living conditions for
migrants. But they have never
been able to think or act beyond
the proposition that the migrant
worker belongs to the country he
has left and therefore does not
belong where he works.’

In the manufacturing industry in France and Germany, where immigrants make up a high percentage in the workforce, there are more fatal accidents than in the other advanced countries.

The accident rate in Germany is twice as high for migrant workers – in France it is an incredible 8 times that for the indigenous workforce.

Most immigrants are already of working age – in Britain 60 per cent of West Indian and Asian immigrants are aged between 15 and 34 years old when they arrive. [24] This means that they have a much higher rate of activity than the indigenous population – see table. And immigrant workers are ready-made workers. They cost the country they migrate to nothing – the costs of their education, their housing and their welfare had all been borne by the country they were raised in until they became of working age. The saving for the economies to which these workers migrate has been estimated at between £8,000-£16,000 per worker. [24]

It has been calculated on this basis that in 1970 the French economy received a windfall of around £375 million from the North African workers in France. [25]

The biggest gains are to be made from the single migrant workers who are not accompanied by their families. They are more likely to go home as unemployment rises, since there is nothing for them in the countries they have migrated to. If they pay unemployment insurance, which they do in Germany, or taxes, which they do in some countries, those contributions will be swallowed up by the state – they are not reclaimable. If they do not bring their families with them, there is no need to make capital available to provide the houses, schools and services those families would require. Hence the rigid restrictions on the dependents of migrant workers in most West European countries.

Immigrant Workers in Britain

UP UNTIL 1973 restrictions on immigrant workers right to settle in Britain were much looser than in Germany, France or Switzerland. It was also easier for immigrant workers to enter. The first attempts to control immigration since the 50s began 10 years after the boom. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962 restricted settlement rights to those who had been issued with employment vouchers.

By then the demand for manual immigrant workers was declining, and the ‘C category Voucher, for unskilled workers, had all but disappeared by 1964. Most of the immigrants came in on ‘B’ Category Vouchers which were issued to those with skills and qualification ‘likely to be useful in this country’. At the time, skilled and qualified workers were needed in the schools, hospitals, and other services and of the 3,976 ‘B’ Vouchers issued to India in 1966; 1,511 went to doctors, 922 to technology graduates, 667 to teachers and 469 to science graduates. [26]

The principle of gearing immigration to the needs of the British economy had been established. And when the Immigration Act (1971) came into force in January 1973 it brought British immigration policy into line with the rest of Europe. It drastically reduced settlement rights – only those who have one grandparent born in the UK have automatic rights to settle here, and needless to say, many more Australians than Jamaicans are likely to have a grandparent born here. It also stripped all future immigrant workers of all their rights, tenuously held though these had been. From 1973 on any worker who comes here must be issued with a workpermit for a certain job, with a certain employer. These permits have to be renewed every year, up to four years, after which the holder of a work permit is entitled to apply for citizenship. Since the Act was passed most black immigrants to be admitted to Britain, are not work permit holders, they are the dependents, the wives and the children of those workers who have settled here. On the other hand, large numbers of workpermits have been issued to workers from Spain, Portugal and other Southern European countries, and they have brought very few dependents with them.

‘Tighter immigration controls which will affect thousands of people already in this country are to be announced soon by the Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees. The announcement will come before the Stechford parliamentary by-election.’ (Sunday Times 20.3.77)

Controls are being tightened up all round, plus a new act to define who is a citizen and who is not (Nationality Act) is to be introduced. One of the latest measures aimed at the dependents of immigrant workers is that immigrants are going to lose the tax allowance for supporting the children they left behind – approximately 500,000 children the majority of whose parents are Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians and Irish. The Inland Revenue is not concerned with how many children may face misery and starvation as a result. Axing the allowance will bring the tax man an extra £60 million or so a year.

Role of immigration in British Industry

IMMIGRANT WORKERS, and particularly manual immigrants, in Britain are concentrated in the foundries, textiles, transport and service sectors. The following is an attempt to look at how they ‘fitted in’ in those industries.

During the last 20 years the foundry industry has been completely transformed, from a craft industry employing highly skilled labour, to mechanised production using unskilled labour. The majority of jobs in the industry now require only minimum training and they are jobs that did not exist at the beginning of the 50s. Highly skilled workers such as moulders and coremakers have fallen from 30% of the workforce 25 years ago to 6% today. [27] The industry has had to adapt to meet the needs of expansion in the manufacturing industry and particularly in the car industry which requires higher degrees of precision and higher levels of productivity. Most of the immigrants employed in the manufacture of metal are in the most arduous and dangerous jobs. Nationally 13.3% of workers in iron castings are immigrants and in the West Midlands, a major centre of the industry, the rate is 23.3%. (1971 Census). Birmid Qualcast the Midlands foundry company which sent its recruiting agents out to India in the 50s, has a high percentage of immigrants in its workforce: in 1969 two-thirds of all workers in one subsidiary and 44% of those in another, – 90% of these men were unskilled or semi-skilled. [28]

In British Steel plants in areas where immigrants have concentrated, up to 10% of the workers are immigrants. In 1974

‘... at BSC headquarters (the company – JR) referred to increasing difficulties in recruiting men for dirty and heavy jobs generally. They thought that these difficulties might well lead to the proportion of immigrants... in low level jobs increasing ... though plant closures, etc., had led to a substantial reduction in BSC manpower in some areas, they had done little to alleviate labour shortages in others since workers in plants which closed were generally reluctant to take jobs in others, even in the same geographical areas, where there were vacancies.’ [29]

In other words the company were relying on a weak and compliant section of the labour force, rather than improving wages and conditions in the industry.

The Textile Industry

THERE ARE also relatively high numbers of immigrant workers in the textile industry – nationally immigrants are 8.8% of all workers and 11.8% of male textile workers. The highest concentration is in the wool and worsted section of the industry, with 13.3% of the work force nationally, and 19.2% of all male workers.

Immediately after the war most production workers in cotton and textiles were women on dayshifts. Men were employed mainly as skilled workers – as mule-spinners – a job which needed 3 or 4 years training. In the late 50s and early 60s there was intensive capital investment in this industry. The tariffs on imported cotton from India, Pakistan and Hong Kong from the 1960s onwards meant an annual loss in foreign exchange of £17 million for India alone, but for the industry in Britain it meant an increased demand. To get the maximum productivity from the new plant and equipment the machines had to be manned round the clock and that meant an increase in night shifts. Restrictions on women working at night made it necessary to employ men in what were traditionally jobs held by women. In addition the skilled jobs in the industry disappeared. Mule-spinning was replaced with ring-spinning which can be learnt in six weeks. Wages dropped. The skilled men left the industry, and since many of the women textile workers weren’t able to do the kind of jobs that were needed, the employers turned to immigrant labour. The most startling transformation in the wool and worsted industry is the total job loss. Between 1953 and 1975 numbers of workers involved in direct production slumped from 174,015 to 59,917 – 114,000 jobs lost in only 22 years is equivalent to sacking 100 workers every week throughout those years. And during those years, because they were the only section of the workforce who couldn’t afford to protest against rotten working conditions and subsistence wages, the numbers of immigrant, and particularly Asian workers have increased – from 88 Indian and Pakistani workers in 1953 to 7,727 in 1975 [30] a total increase of about 8,000%.

A study of the employment of immigrants in a number of wool textile companies in a large West Yorkshire town in the mid 1960s showed that the decision to employ Asians as operatives was closely related to new capital investment that involve either shift working or very long hours ... As the enquiry progressed it was seen that capital investment was often the reason for rather than the alternative to the employment of immigrants. [31]

The textile industry claims that yarn spinning is three times as capital intensive as mechanical engineering, and more than twice as capital intensive as the manufacture of cars. [32]

The policy of the biggest textile company in Britain shows what this means in practice. Capital intensive investment in Courtaulds has meant an increasing loss of jobs, coupled with higher sales per worker employed and higher profits per worker. Between 1969 and 1974 11,000 jobs were lost in Courtaulds, but the profit per worker more than doubled – from £635 pa in 1969 to £1,460 in 1974. Sales went up eight-fold, from £860 to £7,700 per worker in 1974. [33] Courtaulds workers are amongst the lowest paid in Britain. In March 1973 30.0% of all workers and 47% of male workers in Courtaulds Northern Spinning Division were immigrants. [34]

In the Northwest – where the textile industry is concentrated, 45 per cent of male immigrants work shifts. [35] There are still twice as many black black workers on shifts as white workers.

In both the above industries there has been thorough rationalisation over the last twenty years or so – in both greater productivity has been achieved by increasing the amount of capital spent on new machinery, labour saving techniques and decreasing the amount spent on wages – by reducing the workforce, deskilling production and a policy of employing women and immigrant workers.

Another industry where higher than average numbers of immigrants are employed also expanded but in a diffferent way. The industries in the service sector – transport, hotel and catering, health and other public services – tend to be labour intensive and expansion begins by employing larger numbers of workers.

In the hotel and catering trade making the greatest profits depends on being able to draw on the cheapest possible source of labour. This is why there are high proportions of immigrant workers in this industry – in 1971 44 per cent of all male workers were immigrants and in the Greater London 55 per cent of all workers in hotel and catering were immigrants. In the 1950s the British Hotel Restaurants and Caterer’s Association recruited workers from Barbados, but the majority of immigrants in the industry now are from Southern Europe and are on work permits. The reduction in permits to be allocated to the industry from 6,000 to 2,000 at the beginning of the year, met with protest from a number of employers.

Seventy per cent of expenditure in the National Health Service is on salaries and wages, and cuts in the health service are going to mean large reductions in the work force. Immigrant workers in the hospitals and health service are amongst the hardest hit by the massive cuts the Government is trying to force through. When qualified doctors were needed in the 60s the Voucher system made sure they were available. By 1975 35.2 per cent of all doctors were born outside the UK and of these about half were born in the Indian sub-continent. [36] They were needed particularity in those areas where there were labour shortages, and bottlenecks. The Sheffield region had markedly fewer doctors to population and a much higher concentration of immigrant doctors than the Liverpool region. [37] And a larger proportion of overseas doctors are in the junior trades, or working as locums, or in the non-teaching hospitals where the work is more demanding and less interesting.

In May 1975 the GMC announced that they would no longer recognise degrees from Indian medical schools as qualification for full or provisional registration in the UK. These doctors are now eligible only for temporary registration – which must be granted by the GMC and allows the doctor to practise only in an approved post. To cut back further on the number of immigrant, black doctors, from June 1975 all overseas applicants for temporary registration must take tests in medical competence and the English language. So far 60-70 per cent of doctors taking these tests have failed. Those most likely to pass are, of course, white doctors from developed countries like South Africa and Australia. What does this mean for the Health Service? The Manpower Unit Studies Report on the Role of Immigrants in the Labour Market spells it out:

‘An earlier reduction in the
numbers of overseas
doctors (69-71) resulted in serious
problems in accident and
emergency services, which were
overcome a) by closure of
a number of small accident
and emergency units

The numbers of overseas nurses are also being axed. From January this year hospital managements have been isntructed not to employ newly qualified overseas student and pupil nurses if there are British applicants for the jobs. In 1975 20.5 per cent of all student and pupil nurses were born overseas, about half of them came to Britain in response to direct recruitment by British Hospitals. Although in the 60s most of these nurses were recruited from the West Indies – at the time this was encouraged by Enoch Powell himself, then Minister of Health – now they come mainly from Malaysia and the Phillipines. Nearly all the student are on SEN courses – a training for a ‘qualification’ which is not recognised anywhere else in the world. So there are at least 9,000 girls and men, who have been persuaded, with hundreds of falsehoods about ‘job satisfaction’, ‘job opportunity’ and ‘career prospects’, in to put in two years hard work as cheap labour in the health service, at the end of which they are to be kicked out with a qualification which is not worth the paper it is printed on.

Immigrant workers have been hit much harder by the recession. This is mainly because those industries and jobs in which they are concentrated have also been hit hardest by the crisis. In February/March 1975 between one third and one quarter of all workers unemployed were those in the manufacturing sector (348,000) and those in semi-skilled and manual jobs made up 44 per cent of the total numbers of unemployed. [39]

The total number of unemployed workers has increased by 220 per cent in the last three years – amongst West Indian women it has gone up by 750 per cent, amongst black youth by 800 per cent and amongst Asian women, by a staggering 1000 per cent. The unions, predictably, have done nothing.

‘Asians and West Indians, half of whom arrived in Brittain with the past ten years, from countries having a different framework of industrial relations, have been readier than the white population to put their trust in the trade unions.’ [40]

Sixty-one per cent of all black workers are members of trade unions, compared with only 40 per cent white workers. And black workers have shown time and again, that the initial distrust the unions showed, the suspicions that they would be used as scabs, are completely unfounded. In 1965 Paul Foot wrote:

‘The reaction of the British to this new phenomenon was, at the outset, both suspicious and interested. There were many examples of strikes and other forms of industrial action against the employment or promotion of coloured workers. Such action was particularity prominent among busmen and railwaymen who saw the coming of the coloured man amongst them as the symbol of their own demotion from the aristocracy of British labour. As soon as both groups of workers found, however that the coloured workers joined the union immediately, eagerly supporting all moves for higher wages and better conditions, they dropped their opposition. In the main, throughout the numerous engineering factories and mills into which the immigrants were absorbed, the degree of hostility and bitterness at work was remakably small.’ [41]

Over the years black workers have shown that they are solid and militant trade unionists. But the unions’ record is appalling. Strike after strike left unsupported, Red Star Preston, Harwood Cash, Imperial Typewriters, Mansfield Hosiery, the Grunwicks Strike, on the most basic issue of trade union recognition, now entering its 31st week; absolute failure to fight the victimisation of immigrant workers – the Turkish workers in the International Branch of the T&GWU (which has a higher per centage of black workers than any other union) organised the London Wimpy bar workers in 3 years, 1970-1973; were an outstanding example of how militant union organisation could improve wages and conditions in the catering trade, went out on strike on May Day and closed down the Wimpys, in solidarity with the Shrewsbury Two, yet, when in 1973 the restaurant chain suddenly and mysteriously ‘went Bankrupt’, and every one of those workers were made redundant and most of them subsequently deported since they had no work permits, they received no support from the trade union they were organised into, and the branch official, John Stevens, expressed to the press his concern about ‘illegal immigration’. The trade union leaders and officials jabber about ‘our own people’ by which they mean ‘white people’, and the TUC effecting encourages workers to see immigrants as responsible for unemployment, by petitioning the Government, two years running, to decrease the number of permits issued to foreign workers.


THERE ARE many fewer immigrant workers in Britain, than in Germany or Switzerland, and Britain is also a country of net emigration and has been for years. Also in Germany and Switzerland immigrants are more highly concentrated in the most productive sections of industry, than in Britain. A West German economist says that the manufacturing industry, which employs two-thirds of all foreign migrants, is responsible for productivity increases in the economy as a whole and since 1960 has increased its lead over other industries. Large reserves of migrant labour is one of the reasons this has occured. [42]

Migration in Europe has in the past been far more tightly controlled than in Britain – in Switzerland now, for example, the numbers of workers on seasonal and frontier permits, which allow only 6-9 months entry, have increased, meaning that the employers can bring workers into industry during an upturn, and get rid of them in a downturn. In Germany the number of work permits issued between 1973 and 1975 has declined from 319,000 to 21,000, and the numbers foreign workers fell by 230,000, between June 1974 and June 1975. Yet the official employment register only accounts for two-thirds of those workers – the rest have ‘gone home.’

Although to a lesser extent than in Europe the exploitation of immigrant workers in Britain, has helped to created wealth for the employers. There is no doubt that they are fully aware of the advantages – statement after statement fromemployers, politicians, and state institutions across Europe point to this. In 1946 Callaghan, now Prime Minister, then ‘a young ex-union official’ and an MP, predicted:

‘In a few years we will
be faced with a shortage
of labour – not with a
shortage of jobs.
We ought now to become a
country where immigrants
are welcomed.
We should break away from this
artificial segregation of nation from nation
Who is going to pay for
the old age pensions and
social services unless
we have an addition to our
population, which only immigration
can provide in the years to come?’

Today, of course, ‘artificial segregation of nation from nation’ is used to further advantage by the employing class, to create what is effectively a sub-section of the working class, kept isolated and divided from indigenous workers. Throughout Europe racism has been an effective means of dividing and weakening the working class – from the pathological attacks on Algerian workers in France, to Germany, which operates a semi-official bar on the recruitment of black immigrants, and where the foreign worker is called gypsy; rag-pack; camel rider; lemon squeezer and snake eater.

The aim of this article was to draw a general outline of the effects of immigrant labour in industry throughout Europe and there is no room here to examine how this exploitation has affected the migrant worker him or herself, although there is a clue to this in both the accident rates amongst immigrant workers, and also the statistics for ‘mental illness’. In Britain in 1961 9 out of every thousand immigrants were classified as mentally ill as compared to 6 per every thousand for the native population. [44] (The Immigration Act (1971) allows the deportation of immigrant workers who become mental-health in-patients). In France the rate of mental illness for migrant workers is two or three times higher than that for French citizens. In other words the effect on immigrant workers themselves can be put simply as death, misery and a target for vile abuse. That this has been going on for as long as twenty years points to nothing as clearly as the fact that throughout those years the kind of organisation that can begin to smash these divisions and challenge the ideas and assumptions on which they rest has not existed.

The coming months may well see a more general workers’ offensive on the social contract, and as the level of struggle rises, the racialists will lose some of the hold they have of the ears and minds of the white working class. There will be solutions other than ‘blame the blacks’. But unemployment is going to continue, probably to rise, particularly in those sections of industry and those types of jobs and those areas in which there are higher concentrations of immigrant workers. Which means that the organisation of black workers in the fight against unemployment, and for the right to work, the campaign against the deportations of nurses; opposition to the overt racism of the National Front and the racist attacks of the State, such as the frame-up of the Islington 18 and continual police harrassment and intimidation of black youth, ever larger numbers of whom are leaving school and going straight onto the dole queues – in the coming years work around these and similar issues, above all the role of black revolutionaries, is crucially important.

Top of page


1. John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man, The Story of a Migrant Worker in Europe.

2. Ibid., pp.155-171.

3. Ibid., p.39.

4. Travailleurs Immigres en Lutte, No.7, February 1977.

5. Finance and Development, Vol.10 No.1, March 1973, quoted by J. Power in The New Proletariat, Encounter, September 1974.

6. quoted by Power in Encounter, September 1974.

7. The Role of Immigrants in the Labour Market, Project Report for the Unit of Manpower Studies, March 1977, p.172.

8. Power, Western Europe’s Migrant Workers, Minority Rights Group Report No.28, p.15

9. Ibid., p.20.

10. Racism: Who Profits, CIS Anti-Report, No.16, p.16.

11. Power, op.cit., p.18.

12. Economist, 9.8.75.

13. Castles and Kosak, Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe, p.370.

14. See New York Herald Tribune, 14.3.77.

15. Where is Lucas Going?, CIS Anti-Report No.12, p.35.

16. Mahfoud Bennouhe, The Maghribian Migrant Workers in France, in Race and Class, Vol.XVII No.1, September 75, p.47.

17. Power, op. cit., p.23.

18. Ibid., p.17.

19. Unit of Manpower Studies, p.172.

20. Castles and Kosak, op. cit., p.?.

21. Unit of Manpower Studies, op. cit., p.172.

22. Paul Foot, in Workers Against Racism, written in 1973 and still the best pamphlet available (from SWP, 6 Cottons Gardens, London E2 8DN).

23. Berger and Mohr, p.145.

24. David Smith, The Facts of Racial Disadvantage, Survey for the PEP, Feb. 1976, p.27.

25. A. Gorz, NLR, No.61.

26. Calculated by Medeline Trebous, in Migration et Developpement: Le cas de L’Algerie, quoted by Power, in Encounter. Trebous estimated the ‘cost of rearing’ a worker in Algeria for 15 years as £500. The cost of rearing a worker in Europe would be around 5 times higher, and would thus have represented a saving not of £375 million but around £1,875 million, in 1970.

27. A. Sivanandan, Race, Class and the State: The Black Experience in Britain, in Race & Class, Vol.XVII No.4, Spring 1976, p.354.

28. Unit of Manpower Studies, op.cit., p.47.

29. Ibid., p.47.

30. Wool Industry Bureau of Statistics, ibid., p.126.

31. Ibid., pp.51 and 52

32. Courtaulds, Inside-out, CIS Anti-Report No.10, p.23.

33. Ibid., p.23.

34. Unit of Manpower Studies, op. cit., p.49.

35. D. Smith, PEP, op. cit., p.79.

36. Unit of Manpower Studies, op.cit., p.58.

37. Ibid., p.59.

38. Unit of Manpower Studies, op. cit., p.61.

39. Department of Employment Gazette, September 1976, p.1039.

40. D. Smith, PEP, op. cit., p.115

41. Paul Foot, Immigration, and Race in British Politics, p.172 This is a really good account of both the period of Jewish migration and the early years of black immigration.

42. Unit of Manpower Studies, p.189.

43. Paul Foot, op. cit., p.117.

44. Castles & Kosak, op. cit., p.337.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 1.3.2008