Sunday, March 28, 2004

They were good for the British economy

Last year, if you mentioned the number of immigrant workers in Britain (the illegal, the asylum-seeking, and the legal), even educated socialists were mouthing the trite justification, "Demographically the nation is getting older, and we need them for the British economy". They were even getting this from the Guardian, the BBC, and not just from their chattering-class dinners.

Then last month, 20-odd Chinese illegals died in Morecambe Bay caught by the tides while cockle-picking. They didn't speak English, they were hopelessly underpaid, and the "nation" is outraged at the gangmasters that exploited them. Well, I commented back then that the inscription on their tombstones should be, "They were good for the British economy".

Yesterday, the Guardian finally headlined their Saturday printed edition with a brilliant expose into the world of the low-paid, usually immigrant worker. In a redeeming piece of journalism, the Guardian at last is shaking and stirring out of complacency. Finally the intelligentsia of Labour's conscience have clued in. As usual, people had to die before it hit home.Read Inside the grim world of the Gangmasters. I won't paraphrase it. How are you connected to this? The chicken you expect to be cheap at the supermarket (eg Sainsbury's) is butchered in Norfolk, where the food corporation (eg Grampian's) hires cheap labour. The temp agency (eg Pertemps) gives them cheap labour: the odd Brit, the Brazilians, the Portuguese, the East Europeans, and the Chinese. The gangmasters introduce and fleece the cheap labour when they are illegal and can't speak English.

Oh yes, and the businessmen (economists, bless them!) were moaning this week that Sainsbury's profits are down. Preaching economic models that use shillings and pence, undoubtedly, instead of broader measures of quality of life.

It was a mystery to me for a long time: what was keeping the British economy on its legs? Everyone has been driving around in new cars. Everyone has been showing off or getting a new kitchen. Few seem to have economically essential jobs, yet carry loads of debt with ignorant complacency.

I did working class jobs for six months last year, on the streets, and in the parks. At one firm I found 3 Russians, amongst the more regular students and working class. One worked in my crew for a few days: he didn't look a bit Russian. My curiousity soon won over my bigotry and I got to know him and like him. I soon found out he was an Azerbaijani Moslem. (He explained that his parents had never been inside a mosque, and that Azerbaijan's attitude to Islam was similar to Turkey's.) He had excellent English, and he was a university-educated mathematician. He had lived in Moscow, and experienced skin-colour bigotry there when trying to get into nightclubs. He and his other two white Russian mates were working directly for the firm, not through an agency, and it sounded like they were paid cash. He commuted the Silverlink train daily without a ticket, through 3 expensive Travelcard zones, and somehow had never encountered a ticket inspector! I never found out how much he was being paid, but it must have been less than the £5.15 per hour that the legal employees were making.

Today's bosses of the low-paid class have a more sophisticated version of the old motto, "The working class can kiss my ass, I've got the foreman's job at last". On the construction sites in London, you wouldn't have any trouble finding disgruntled East Europeans who might talk about it. At least some of them know enough English to go with their Caucasian appearance. (Nor are they complete suffering fools, because they learn quickly what is worth enjoying in London. I was astonished one dark evening to come upon a party of East Europeans having a Vodka fuelled campfire singalong in Whipps Cross Woods, Epping Forest)

The average British office jobber closes his eyes to all of this. They move from house to train to office to supermarket, excited only by their second home in Spain or by a threat to their pension. From their house they expect their rubbish to be collected by they-don't-care-who. On their train journeys they expect safe railways worked on by they-don't-care-who. In the office they expect cleaned carpets, desks and kitchens by they-don't-care-who. In the supermarket they expect to buy chicken that is cheaper than petrol, butchered by they-don't-care-who.

The British middle class might notice these things again, but they should also be aware that their own British low-paid honest hard workers have been experiencing this immigration phenomenon and have been suffering from the competition for a while.

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