I have nothing whatsoever against Polish people; although I can’t claim that any of my best friends are Polish, I have met some charming Poles over the years. In fact at the moment I have a couple in my class who I like enormously. And years ago, in my very first teaching job, on a glorious summer’s day in Dublin, I was given a class of 14 Polish au pairs, who seemed very sweet, outgoing and broadminded. Or at least they did until I happened to mention the word ‘gypsy’.
From that moment, as they skies outside the classroom suddenly filled with dark clouds the atmosphere in the classroom quickly turned to one of unadulterated racial hatred. Everybody had a bitter tale to tell about the filthy, lazy, scrounging scum plaguing their land. I was genuinely shocked as noone seemed to have the slightest reservation about advocating violence against an evidently fairly beleaguered community – 70% of Poland’s gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust.
Of course it would have been churlish of me to point out that six of the main extermination camps were located in Poland, especially as so far as the Nazis were concerned it was all part of Germany anyway. But it just so happened that at the time I was reading a book about alcohol consumption around Eastern Europe, which mentioned that there is a very potent myth about the number of Jewish people living in Poland. Around three million died in the death camps, it said, and although official statistics state that there are now only about 15,000 remaining, most Polish people would apparently state with confidence that the real number is more like a good couple of million. So in the midst of this firestorm of racist attitudes I decided to find out if this was really the case, and my students, who before had seemed perfectly good-natured and tolerant, obliged by letting me know in detail about the scandal of Poland’s hidden jews. I don’t think they were talking about Anne Frank.
Partly because of this, I’ve never considered Poland as a possible destination, either for living or for a holiday. Too cold, too grey, too superstitious and too, well, racist. And certainly as far as the political side of things go, I think I’ve recently been considerably vindicated. The weather, as far as I know, has not improved much either.
I can understand, then, why people might not want to live there. Now, of course, the country is part of the EU and Polish people are free to travel to work – anyone who has been anywhere near Victoria coach station in London over the last couple of years can witness just how many of them are keen to come to the UK and find a job. They come to places like Ealing.
Now I want to make it clear here that I am totally in favour of immigration. It enriches the destination country economically, culturally, linguistically – in every conceivable way. Places like London, Sheffield and, now, Dublin are infinitely better-off for enjoying such a variety of different peoples from all over the world, and anyone who cares to suggest otherwise is well advised to spend a year or so in a place that doesn’t have such a mix – China, for example – and then see how they feel.
The problem that I do have is that here in Ealing, where I work, that mix is largely limited to the people you see on the streets. Because the moment you step into a cafe or a pub, the first thing you notice is: that almost all the staff are white. It’s quite rare to be served by black, Pakistani or Bengali people – by, that is, locals. The majority of people working in these jobs are Polish and have come here very recently, and they are doing jobs which, on the whole, would otherwise be done by people who were either born here or have lived here longer – for want of a better word, British people, wherever their families originated from.
The same point was made in an article in the Guardian late last year by Polly Toynbee, in which she talked about the recent opportunistic changes in Conservative Party Immigration policy. Her basic argument was that ‘the use of cheap foreign Labour may boost our GDP, but it enriches the well-off at the expense of the low-paid’. I can see her point, insofar as she is talking about recent arrivals from the new EU countries:
Bercow (Conservative MP) and Labour hotly assert that migrants don’t take jobs from British workers nor depress wages. But there is no evidence for this assertion. It is impossible to know what level wages might be at or how many unemployed might have been tugged into jobs at higher pay rates had Britain kept its doors shut to new EU citizens until their countries had caught up economically.
Blair and Brown embrace the inevitability of globalisation, but make a deliberately class-blind analysis. Migrants do bring GDP growth, but remember the Gate Gourmet workers fired to make way for cheaper newly arrived workers. Migrants add to the profits of the company and thus to GDP. They keep down the cost of flying for people wealthy enough to fly. They also hold down the pay rate for all other low-paid workers, keeping wage inflation remarkably low and the Bank of England very happy.
But all this does nothing but harm to the old Gate Gourmet workers and to all the other low-paid. This is what globalisation does, widening the gap between rich and poor. Cheap labour provides more cheap services for the rich to get their lifestyle at a premium while nailing an ever-larger swath of the workforce to the minimum-wage floor. The greatest job growth is in rock-bottom jobs.
London has the most migrant workers and it also has the most unemployed. Who are they? Many more young people are not in education or work after generations of deprivation. Bangladeshis are among the poorest because 80% of their women don’t work. Many more London single mothers can’t work because the cost of housing and childcare means even tax credits don’t lift them out of a poverty trap where a low-paid job means working at a loss.
This is quite a sophisticated argument because the superficial idea – that Eastern Europeans are coming over here and taking ‘our’ jobs, thereby deflating wages – seems like a classic racist rallying call. But we are talking here about a very sudden phenomenon, and one that seems to have been orchestrated from above precisely in order to achieve the objective of lowering wages.
I’m not actually very sure how I feel about the conclusions she comes to. In terms of possible solutions, the following is both seductive and shocking:
Try this thought experiment: 43.5% of nurses recruited by the NHS since 1999 come from outside the UK. What if that were banned? The NHS in London would find clever ways to recruit from the city’s mass of underqualified boys and girls, single mothers and other non-workers. Recruiters might set up special classes for 14-year-olds interested in nursing, promising work as nursing assistants while they trained, places to live in attractive nurses’ homes, starter homes for key-worker families, status and good pay. The offer would be irresistible, and yes, taxes would be higher.
Other employers would be in hot contest to entice the forgotten people into building, transport and catering. Adam Smith’s hidden hand of the market would force the workless into work. It is shocking that 30,000 of the 70,000 workers being employed to start work on transport infrastructure for the Olympics are to be east Europeans, not impoverished Londoners.
I’m not so certain about the ‘hidden hand of the market’. I think that’s just as much as a myth as Poland’s hidden millions of Jews. After all, one of the main reasons why people from low-wage countries are suddenly able to work in different countries is because the not-so-hidden-hand of European business and pro-business policy makers has determined that it is a convenient way of ‘reducing costs’ and making us all more ‘competitive’. And I find it doubtful that the new EU countries will rapidly ‘catch up’ with their wealthier neighbours, and find it difficult to believe that anyone really believes that – the most quoted statistic given for their ongoing level of economic development is GDP, which is, of course, and especially given that we are talking about wages here, nonsense. Those countries have been brought into the EU because it is cheaper to produce things there and workers will work for less money.
Nevertheless I don’t think there is some kind of idealised version of EU capitalism where everybody could be content to stay put and employers would have their workers’ best interests at heart. Globalised capitalism only allows and encourages people to move when it’s in its own very best interests, and it is cheaper to hand over low-paid jobs to EU newcomers than it is to provide longer-term immigrants – asylum seekers, for example – with the support and language training they need in order to be able to establish themselves here more permanently with proper jobs. After all, nobody should be working all week for the pittance that they pay you to work in cafes or bars these days, whether they were born in Britain, Bangladesh or Poland.
In conclusion, then, two unrelated points. One, that people from the Deep South must find it reasonably amusing that there is a country by the name of Po’land. And secondly, a prediction: in the not-too-distant future someone will pop up to proclaim that Poland is the China of Europe. Oh wait, someone just did.