12 August 2013

Solidarity to Counter Corporate Exploitation

As though in response to my previous post (!) Chris Bryant will today make a speech addressing the political economy of immigration. According to extracts published in yesterday's Telegraph, he will accuse Tesco and Next of deliberately hiring workers from other EU countries because they are prepared to put up with working conditions and terms of employment that unions outlawed for British workers several decades ago. This, at last, is Labour fighting back on behalf of labour but it comes nearly a decade too late.

Most of the public prognostications about immigration are performance rather than policy, because since the major Enlargement of the European Union in 2004, right in the middle of the last Labour government, there has been a labour-market of 500 million people but without legislation to protect working conditions. What the EU proudly calls the 'largest enlargement so far' took place in 2004 and saw ten new countries join the EU including the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Solvenia, Hungary and the Baltic States. This creation of a huge pool of surplus and low-paid Labour was inevitably going to create downward pressure on wages and cause migration from lower- to higher-paid economies across Europe.

I opposed the Enlargement because I saw that it would increase the size of the low-skilled labour-market and therefore as part of a corporate agenda to undermine the power of working people. I lived in Wales at the time and it was obvious from that vantage-point that the life-chances of those who relied on employment in the factories of multinational companies would suffer seriously if workers earning far less were to become available within the same single market. I assume that Chris Bryant, MP for the Rhondda, has a similar vantage-point but his protestations come to late and with no concrete policies attached. If trade unions, and the Labour parties that were supposed to represent labour and were in power in many of the EU countries at the time, had insisted on equal terms and conditions and a single European minimum wage then the Enlargement could indeed have spread poverty eastwards, but without this agreement it actually brought poverty and employment insecurity westwards.

The conditions of employment, democratic rights and legal protections we enjoy in the UK--the very reason that living and working here is so attractive to those overseas--were won as a consequence of long and bitter struggles. Globalisation, through the expansion of out-sourcing and off-shoring as well as the freer movement of labour, has weakened these rights. This is an issue that stems from the relative power of capital and labour rather than an argument about who us, or is not, a racist. The whole immigration debate is a classic example of divide-and-rule, distracting from the obvious truth that all workers need to be protected with basic employment rights and minimum wage rates.

In the 19th-century the attempt by those who control capital to exploit workers by moving them beyond their sphere of natural rights was recognised and the proposal was one if international solidarity: that workers of the world should unite. If Chris Bryant is to move beyond rhetoric, and to convince working people that there is some purpose in voting Labour, then he needs to get his union friends across Europe to organise that solidarity and call for uniform working conditions and a Europe-wide minimum wage.

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