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John Charlton

Guest Workers and Super-exploitation

(April 1975)

From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.77, April 1975, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

John Charlton writes:
AT PRESENT there are about nine million migrant workers working in the EEC countries and Switzerland – excluding internal migration (Southern Italians working in the prosperous north). There are one million North Africans, 850,000 Italians, 750,000 Irish, 500,000 Turks, 500,000 Yugoslavs, 500,000 Spanish, 500,000 Africans, 400,000 Indians and Pakistanis, 400,000 West Indians and 300,000 Portuguese. Although immigrants remit £1,000 million per year to their country of origin, their exploitation by Northern European capital seriously inhibits the economic development of their homelands as they are drawn from the fittest sections of the working population. Because they are young, fit, predominantly single, they also take out much less in social benefits than does the indigenous working population in their country of adoption. They tend to work for lower wages and fill the jobs which the native workers do not want. To a considerable extent Europe’s tremendous post war prosperity has been built upon the backs of the migrants.

But ‘Europe’ has not shown its gratitude. The governments of all the EEC countries have responded to their inability to provide a decent standard of living for workers – houses, schools, hospitals and job security – by blaming the influx of immigrants. All have imposed immigration controls in stages over the past ten years. In Britain, the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962 and 1968 and the 1971 Immigration Act, have virtually closed the door to black immigrants. In July 1974 France imposed a total ban on new entrants unless a specific job was arranged and accommodation guaranteed. Germany too has imposed rigid quotas and is currently drafting legislation to limit further entry. Belgium and Holland have also tightened their policies. The most recent moves in the direction of restriction are closely related to the economic recession which has hit Europe in the past two years and go far beyond the limiting of new entrants. Depriving existing immigrants of their jobs and repatriation has become respectable currency. A representative of the German Employers’ Federation has said:

‘In the case of a decline of the employment situation ... the foreigner would have to expect to be the first to lose his job.’

The government has ordered firms to discriminate against foreign workers. Germans were to be given first preference for jobs. Employers should make foreign workers redundant -even offering redundancy pay – whereupon the authorities would withdraw work and residence permits and expel them. To make life even more difficult areas are to be designated where no more immigrants are to be permitted to live, urban areas to impose a limit of 12 per cent foreigners within their boundaries and cuts to be made in child allowances.

In October 1974 a referendum was held in Switzerland, staged managed by the Neo-fascist National Action Party, which aimed at cutting the number of immigrants in residence by half. Over 30 per cent voted in favour. A right wing politician, Swarzenbach is building on this ‘success’ by demanding the apparently more modest demand of a 2½ per cent cut in the immigrant numbers.

At the same time a much harsher policy has developed towards dependents. The British immigration authorities are developing savage attitudes towards the wives and children of Pakistani and Indian immigrants. The last Labour government insisted on a ‘special entry certificate’ for each wife, husband or child who wanted to join a worker in Britain. A vast bureaucracy of ‘entry certificate officers’ was established in the High Commissions of the ‘country of origin’ – chiefly Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and East Africa.

These officers investigate the claims of workers’ dependents. They assume that the prospective immigrants are not the wives, husbands or children of workers in Britain. So the applicants are cross-examined. If the stories differ in one small detail from the stories of the workers they seek to join, their applications are refused. Also hopeful immigrants are made to wait months and even years for information. The Times reported in November 1974:

‘A newly married woman was told she would have to wait till mid 1976 before she could even get an interview for her entry certificate application.’

The Swiss, German and Dutch authorities have a deliberate policy of rotation of work permits to deter foreign workers from bringing their wives and families. The Dutch government is quite explicit:

‘... our country has a need for foreign labour and it does not have a need for families from abroad.’

So the law is being tightened up in every country. New immigrants are increasingly finding the obtaining of entry difficult and many existing ones are living precariously. However wholesale repatriation is not really on the agenda. Migrants are central to the economy of Western Europe and will remain so. Those who do stay are going to find life becoming tougher and tougher as the threat of repatriation is used. Immigrants have always done the dirtiest and lowest paid jobs. The building trade, transitory, poorly paid, dangerous and disorganised claims a very high proportion of immigrants in all countries. (In France 35 per cent male migrants are building workers, in Switzerland 33.7 per cent, Germany 21 per cent and Britain 30 per cent). Transport, foundry work, clothing manufacture, hotels and catering also have very high incidences of immigrant workers and in some cases they provide the overwhelming majority of workers. Promotion is extremely rare; employers always using the excuse that indigenous workers would not stand for it. Actually of course it suits the employers much better to avoid any movement to integration, to have a permanent rootless and weak stratum in the workplaces.

There is a depressing uniformity about the living accommodation made available to immigrants. ‘Even where no direct law forbids occupation to foreigners, very little public housing is available. Local authorities discriminate in compiling their housing lists. A more common form of accommodation is that provided by companies. It is usually of the hostel variety and available only to single workers – a further disincentive to bringing dependents. Minimum provisions are laid down in Germany:

‘every occupant of such accommodation shall be provided with a minimum of a straw palliasse and a pillow. Woollen blankets, and bed linen ... shall be changed once a month; The straw must be replaced as required but at least every three months.’

Hot water need only be provided if the work carried out by the tenants is classified as dirty. Clearly the worker could be forgiven for thinking he was entering prison! The impression might be confirmed in some cases by the rules and regulations imposed which include clearing the hostel after 5 a.m. every day, being in bed with lights out by 10 p.m., and the forbidding of visitors. One survey showed that wardens were often former concentration camp employees; whilst Algerian workers in France often find themselves supervised by expelled colons!

However, workers in this sort of accommodation can count themselves fortunate compared with the plight of those forced to seek accommodation in the private sector. In their book, Immigrant Workers and the Class Structure in Western Europe, Castles and Kosack report:

‘In an old chocolate factory owned by a private speculator at Ivry (a suburb of Paris) 541 black Africans were sharing 11 rooms in 1969. Some of the dormitories including one in which 70 people were sleeping had no windows. The ground floor boasted two taps with drinking water, the other floors two taps with more drinking water. There were five WCs and one wash basin.’

Even worse conditions prevail in the shanty towns or bidonvilles on the outskirts of French industrial towns. It is estimated that some 100,000 people (largely immigrants) live in the bidonvilles:

‘The bidonville looks like a rubbish dump. The inhabitants pile any materials around their walls and on their roofs in a vain attempt to keep out the wet and cold and to protect the roofs from being carried away by a strong wind. There are no sanitary amenities of any kind. The open sewers are a constant danger to health.’

Housing is the most dramatic illustration of the grim place occupied by immigrants in Western Europe. However it is also the case that immigrants are disadvantaged in every other area. They suffer more accidents at work, greater incidences of diseases like TB, wait longer for hospital treatment and have poorer facilities for their own education and their children’s.

At the same time as the governments are tightening up the law on legal immigrants, the traffic in illegal immigrants is intensifying. It is estimated that there are over one million permanent illegal immigrants in Europe and that possibly as many as 250,000 are brought in each year. This is a very big business indeed. The operators have vast sums in capital tied up in it and they operate like 18th century slavers. Villages in Mali and Senegal are used as pools of indentured labour. Young men and women are provided with passports, travel documents and work permits, flown into private airfields, or carried in crates in container trucks, housed in primitive barracks and provided with jobs. The catch is that they are tied financially to the operator for years. They can be paid any wages he thinks fit, given any available accommodation and charged any rent and, since they are illegal and subject to immediate deportation, they dare not protest. Recently a German employer denounced his 17 Moroccan workers to the police as illegal immigrants. It was then discovered that he had not paid them for a whole year. He denounced them to the police when they raised the question of wages!

The level of organisation and the smooth running of operations – which for example can bring hundreds of busloads of Turks into Germany, disguised as tourists from Ankara and deliver them to their employers – speak of a sophisticated international network. It is interesting that no big operator has yet been brought to book. Instead the authorities concentrate on waging brutal manhunts of the helpless victims. In Britain the Home Office employs a massive force of policemen around the coast lines of South East England to chase pathetic half starved Pakistanis. The authorities are well aware that the division between legal and so-called illegal is one to exploit in their policy of intimidation. Unfortunately some immigrants themselves are frightened into accepting the division themselves.

Major Trade Union Federations in the EEC

West European trade unions have a pretty poor record where these matters are concerned. Many have a verbal commitment to recruitment and defence of foreign workers at a national level, but the record in specific situations ranges from the passive to the reactionary. They show little interest in organising immigrants. Exceptions are in industries which have long traditions of closed shops and unionisation. All have passively accepted the recent legislative moves against immigrants, and in the case of the major Swiss Unions actively campaigned for restrictive legislation.

And when in January, Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, relaxed the Immigration Act in order to allow the entry of Fillipino girls (wanted by his rich friends as domestic servants) the TUC registered a strong protest This is the other side of the coin of ‘Buy British’, an economic nationalism which can only divide and weaken the working class at a time when maximum unity is essential.

The unions do not in general appoint officials with special knowledge of the language or culture of the immigrant groups. Many actively argue that no special provisions are required and even that special provisions are themselves discriminatory. When immigrants do fight back against their dreadful conditions they have learnt to expect no help from their union and in some cases even active opposition. The recent actions at Mansfield Hosiery, Imperial Typewriters and Kenilworth Products and earlier at Courtaulds, Preston, and Birmid, Smethwick, in Britain provide examples of unions who quite callously sold out black workers. And such examples abound in Europe too.

The position of the migratory workers and the attitudes of the trade unions places the whole future of the working class in jeopardy. In the absence of principled propaganda campaigns and determined workshop struggles for unity, the stage is surrendered to the extreme right always ready to exploit racialist sentiments in the working class. In each of the European countries the neo-fascists have gained strength recently. The Order Nouveau (French fascists) worked very closely with the French Mafia in summer 1973, when they organised a campaign of brutal violence against the North African workers of Marseilles. A local Marseilles newspaper showed how strongly was fascist influence when they published an editorial which would have done credit to Goebbels:

‘We have had enough of Algerian troublemakers, syphilitics and pimps, madmen, thieves, and killers who take advantage of uncontrolled immigration.’

The same organisation in 1974 organised a national petition calling for an end to all immigration. In Germany the NPD has been very prominent in attacking the alleged depravity of Turks and Slavs. In Britain the outpourings of Enoch Powell in the mid-sixties pushed the government, the opposition and the press to the right on the immigration issue. There has been a sharp increase in violence against the foreigner in every country and as the recession deepens we can expect racialist hysteria to increase. The employers, the governments and the extreme right have got ready-made targets and the unions will bear a heavy responsibility for allowing this situation to develop.

But it is not all gloom. For, recently, immigrants in all countries have begun to fight back – and with some success. The responsibilities of the revolutionary left in all countries is clear. It must involve itself in all such struggles helping and encouraging immigrant workers to combat their own oppression. In Britain, black workers are becoming increasingly responsive to revolutionary politics. It is here that the great hope lies.

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Last updated: 21.3.2008