Workers Hammer No. 195

Summer 2006


Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

Down with Labour's racist "war on terror"!

The widely-hated Blair government had a disastrous showing in the 4 May local elections, losing control of 16 councils and getting a smaller share of the vote than both the Tories and Liberal Democrats. The elections took place amid a furore of racist hysteria which the Blair government has continued to fuel at every opportunity. The morning the results became known Blair sacked his Home Secretary Charles Clarke because of a scandal whipped up by the press over “foreign criminals on the loose”, which amounts to a demand for automatic deportation of all foreign nationals who serve prison sentences, even for minor offences. Blair is also being goaded to crack down on the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in this country who either have not applied for legal status or have been denied it — dubbed “illegal” immigrants. Asylum seekers are refused the right to work, which the Church of England condemned as using destitution as a “tool of coercion”, yet Blair intends to fast track the deportations of refugees, stripping them of the minimal protection offered by the Human Rights Act if need be.

Immigrants and asylum seekers often risk their lives to make it to countries in Europe, including Britain, only to face massive repression from the state when they get here. Many immigrants who have settled here have their applications for legal status refused and face dawn raids on their homes, followed by detention and deportation. As a result of a racist press frenzy over “health tourism”, on 15 May, Ese Elizabeth Alabi, a 29-year-old mother from Nigeria who fell ill while visiting her partner in Britain, died because new immigration restrictions denied her the heart transplant she urgently needed. The situation for all immigrants and minorities has worsened as a result of the government’s “war on terror”. This targets Muslims in the first instance but is designed to regiment the whole working class. Any Muslim, Asian, African — or Brazilian — who is deemed a “terror suspect” can be locked up indefinitely or even shot down by cops, as was seen in the killing last year of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian immigrant electrician who was on his way to work.

From the point of view of the working class of this country, the real “criminals on the loose” are the blood-sucking capitalist class and the Labour government who are responsible for the brutal colonial occupation and plunder of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as hideous class exploitation at home. We say: All British and US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan now! For class struggle against the British capitalist rulers and the Labour government! We call for a class-struggle fight against Labour’s racist “war on terror” and demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants who are in the country, regardless of whether they are deemed “legal” or not. Exploitation and racism are inherent to the capitalist profit system and thus we vehemently oppose reformist appeals to the capitalist government and state to “defend” immigrants. Instead we seek to bring to bear the social power of the multiethnic working class in a struggle in defence of immigrant workers. This would give an enormous boost to the capacity of the entire working class to defend itself against the vicious Blair government.

The working class in Britain has been taking it in the neck for decades and the unions have been severely weakened. Under Blair, private companies now make millions out of the gutting of health care and state education, while the working class is under the gun. Royal Mail is provocatively trying to force a pay offer on postal workers that was previously rejected by the CWU union; at the Vauxhall car plant in Ellesmere Port 900 workers face redundancy as the US car giant GM slashes jobs due to falling profits while Peugeot plans to close its plant at Ryton in Coventry throwing 2300 workers out of their jobs. With pensions under attack, in March over one million local government workers struck over plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65, at which age most of them can expect to receive a meagre £30 per week from the pension fund they have paid into.

Britain’s “flexible” economy is based on vicious exploitation of workers — both native-born and immigrant — who earn pitiful wages. The Bank of England brags that, with low unemployment in Britain at present, immigrant labour from Eastern Europe and elsewhere “has helped limit wage increases and reduced inflationary pressures. That, in turn, tends to keep down interest rates and aid growth” (Financial Times, 10 February). Britain’s economy — one of the most unequal in Europe — is highly dependent on a new generation of immigrants whose conditions are often worse than those faced by previous generations. Forced labour, debt-bondage and violence towards workers is rampant, including in the government’s own departments. As Felicity Lawrence noted in the Guardian (3 February 2005):

“the state uses migrants’ forced labour in many cases — when it outsources local authority care to the private sector, when it uses agencies to recruit NHS nurses who end up living on £5 a week, when it uses contract cleaners provided by the cheapest bidder for its offices, or when subcontracted migrant labour is used on private finance initiative construction. The UK has Europe’s most flexible labour force; it lives in fear and squalor, is paid a pittance and is bussed round the country to work in the shadows of the night shift.”

The country was shocked by the barbaric conditions of immigrants when in February 2004, 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay. These immigrants had no legal rights as workers, worked for “gangmaster” contractors in a form of debt-bondage and were given no safety instructions, not even the times of the tides. A Chinese immigrant hit the nail on the head when he blamed “the brutality of capitalism for the tragedy”, while journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai argues, “another Morecambe bay is waiting to happen” (Guardian, 28 March).

By denying very basic rights to immigrant workers, the capitalist rulers seek to keep them in fear and prevent them from engaging in struggle against their brutal oppression, the better to drive down the wages and working conditions. Heathrow Airport catering giant Gate Gourmet made a classic move last year to set new immigrants against British minority workers to lower wages for all. The firm provocatively sacked 670 low-paid workers, mainly Sikh women, and replaced them with East European and African immigrants at even lower wages. This was met with a tremendous show of union strength by the multiethnic work force at British Airways, who staged a wildcat strike that crippled BA’s entire international operation, costing millions in profits. This class-struggle response was exactly what was needed, defying the anti-union laws and helping to shatter the myth that British trade unions no longer have any social power. But the trade union leadership under TGWU leader Tony Woodley snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by ending the “illegal” strike, having obtained nothing for the sacked Gate Gourmet workers and leaving union representatives at BA to be victimised. Not surprisingly, when Woodley appeared at London’s May Day demonstration this year (to argue for pressuring New Labour to enact a law guaranteeing trade union freedom!) he was booed and jeered by sacked Gate Gourmet workers.

A class-struggle fight to defend immigrant rights would revitalise the working-class movement as a whole, drawing in vast new layers of immigrant workers whose social weight in the economy is growing. It would also inevitably come into a conflict with the capitalist profit system, which underlines the importance of class independence of the working class from the capitalist state and its agencies. As the example of Gate Gourmet shows, this requires a struggle against the politics of the existing trade union leaders. We seek to build a multiethnic revolutionary workers party, which must be forged in opposition to the union misleaders’ strategy of class collaboration and by countering illusions that the capitalist system can be pressured to protect the rights of workers.

Spurred into action by the Morecambe Bay atrocity, the trade union bureaucracy supported a Gangmasters Licensing Act that was passed in parliament, forcing gangmasters to register with the government, while the state carried out a wave of repression against “illegal” Chinese immigrants! And while trade union leaders have begun to recruit immigrant workers into the unions, the majority are still unorganised and severely exploited. Polish, Hungarian, Latvian and other East European workers can be seen working on building sites, often without helmets or safety boots or harness.

Britain’s larger unions — the TGWU, GMB and Unison — are appealing to the Blair government for an “amnesty” for immigrants that would grant them the right to remain but with second-class status. Instead of craven appeals to the viciously anti-working class, anti-immigrant Labour government, what’s needed is to mobilise the social power of the whole working class in defence of its most vulnerable sector in a struggle for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. The imperialist bourgeoisies manipulate immigration, turning it on and off at different times, not according to the interests of workers but the needs of the capitalist profit system. This is why, with the eastward expansion of the European Union, workers from the new EU countries were excluded by the capitalist rulers of Germany and France, where unemployment levels are high. At the same time these governments sought to lower wages within Germany and France by threatening to move production to Eastern Europe where labour costs are substantially lower. The working classes of both countries have waged struggles against attacks by their own governments, including the recent student-worker struggles in France (see page 12).

Immigrants flee ravages of counterrevolution

In Britain and Ireland — where unemployment is relatively low — the governments grant work permits to East European workers, but have stripped them of many of their basic legal rights as EU citizens. Today in Britain, by and large, the “illegal” Chinese cockle pickers have been replaced by “legal” Polish workers, who are unable to claim sickness or unemployment benefit and often work in the same horrific conditions as “illegal” immigrants. Two Polish workers lost their lives while working on a fruit farm in Twyford due to sheer neglect of their safety. They became caught in a rope-reeling machine they were operating, but were unable to read the operating instructions without translation. According to Poland Monthly (January 2006) the TGWU wrote a letter to the Polish prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, complaining about the plight of tens of thousands of Polish workers in Britain who are “paying up to £50 per week for transport to the factory, whether they got work that day or not; paying three or four times the market rate for accommodation tied to the agency; being charged bogus fees, denied the right to join a union and facing eviction and dismissal if they complained”.

Polish workers are today being driven to emigrate because of capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the collectivised economy and gutted the extensive health care, housing and other social programmes enjoyed by workers before counterrevolution. Appealing to the Polish capitalist government today to protect emigrant workers in Britain is futile, to say the least. What’s needed is a strategy that relies only on the power of the working class itself. When workers throughout Ireland demonstrated last December in support of Irish Ferries workers who faced being replaced by East European workers at a fraction of Irish workers’ wages, our comrades issued a leaflet calling for the power of the working class to be harnessed behind defence of immigrants, declaring: “Unions must organise immigrant workers! Full wages and benefits for immigrants!” (see Workers Hammer no 193, Winter 2005-2006).

Capitalist restoration has devastated the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, causing immiseration and unemployment on a mass scale. As revolutionary internationalists we opposed the eastward expansion of the EU, which was designed to open up these countries that were reeling from capitalist restoration to further imperialist penetration. Our position stems from our principled opposition to the EU itself, an imperialist consortium centred on the main European imperialist powers designed to improve their competitiveness against their American and Japanese rivals. Such an alliance is necessarily at the expense of the working class in Europe, including its minority component, and of the neo-colonial masses elsewhere.

The EU originated in the 1950s as an alliance of rival imperialist powers sharing a common hostility to the Soviet Union. As Trotskyists who uphold the programme of the Russian October Revolution of 1917, we fought to the end for defence of the Soviet Union. In spite of its degeneration under the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy that usurped power in 1924, the Soviet Union remained a workers state based on the collectivised economy that issued out of the revolution, the greatest achievement of the working class to date. We applied the same programme to the workers states created in Eastern Europe in the wake of the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis in WWII, which were qualitatively the same as the Soviet Union after its political degeneration. We stood for unconditional military defence of these workers states against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution; at the same time we fought for proletarian political revolution against Stalinist bureaucratic misrule.

SWP and Socialist Party: the bankruptcy of reformism

In contrast to our record, our reformist opponents including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party supported counterrevolution, cheering reactionary Solidarno?? — a clerical-nationalist, anti-communist movement that was the spearhead of counterrevolution in Poland — and welcoming Yeltsin’s counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the biggest defeat for the international working class to date. At home these reformists are openly reconciled to the existence of the capitalist order, which they seek to pressure for a few crumbs. The SWP’s Respect coalition gained 16 seats in the May elections, taking 12 from Labour in heavily Muslim Tower Hamlets on a programme of opposition to the occupation of Iraq. Respect is not even nominally part of the working-class movement, but a cross-class populist coalition with Islamic religious forces, which disavows secularism and rejects the fight for abortion rights for women. We would not call for a vote to this coalition which would be contrary to the most elementary principle of the class struggle — class independence of the working class. Respect makes no pretence to stand for the overthrow of the racist capitalist order. Its response to the threat posed by the fascist BNP, who won 11 seats from Labour in Barking and Dagenham, is purely electoral: vote for Respect, or support “Unite Against Fascism”. This campaign is sponsored by a host of New Labour luminaries, including London Mayor Ken Livingstone. Their main election poster said: “Stop the fascist BNP — use your vote on 4 May”, a backhanded call to vote Labour which is obscene: the main threat to Muslims, immigrants and minorities in this country comes from the racist Blair government and the capitalist state. The BNP’s racist filth about “Islamification of Britain” is finding receptivity precisely because Labour’s “war on terror” has made anti-Muslim racism “respectable”.

The Socialist Party won a number of council seats, and criticised Respect for gaining support primarily from among Muslims and for lacking a “class-based appeal to all sections of the working class”. This is a polite way of saying that Respect should have appealed to potential BNP voters! According to the Socialist Party: “The white working-class BNP voters of Barking and Dagenham will only be won away from the BNP by a left party that puts forward a class-based alternative” (The Socialist, 11-17 May). While shamelessly pandering to backward consciousness among the working class, the Socialist Party’s slogan “no to terrorism, no to war” (adopted in the aftermath of last year’s London bombing) expresses this outfit’s refusal to oppose the Blair government’s “war on terror”. Their maximum programme is for preservation of the “welfare state” within the framework of decaying capitalism.

Fascists are paramilitary race-terrorists, who cannot be defeated at the ballot box. Their provocations must be stopped by union/minority mobilisations in the streets. Feeding off economic decay, the fascists have been making inroads into derelict former textile towns in Lancashire, riding on the back of a major fascist provocation in Oldham in 2001. The BNP laid siege to the Asian population whom they attacked, aided and abetted by the police. At the time we published a leaflet calling for an end to the police occupation of Oldham, and for union/minority mobilisations to defend Asians against the BNP. We also made clear that the fight against fascism must be linked to a fight for workers revolution to eradicate the capitalist system of private profit that engenders economic and social ruin.

The multiethnic revolutionary workers party we seek to build would infuse wide layers of the working class with an understanding that to defend its own interests — opposing redundancies, defending working conditions and fighting for better wages — it is necessary to oppose the British capitalist rulers on a broad range of issues. The decisive questions we fight for today include: opposition to the colonial occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and to the racist “war on terror”; withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland; for women’s liberation through socialist revolution. We stand for unconditional military defence of the remaining workers states in China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam, against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution. At the same time we fight for a proletarian political revolution to establish a regime based on workers democracy and a revolutionary internationalist perspective, as opposed to the myth of building “socialism in one country”. In Britain, as in other imperialist countries, we view immigrants as a living link to the struggle for Trotskyist parties in their countries of origin, as well as a vital component in building a party dedicated to the overthrow of racist British capitalism.