Published On: Thu, Dec 19th, 2019

Freedom of movement and the rights of labour: A reply to David Pavett 

David Pavett’s attack on the newly-formed Labour Campaign for Free Movement wrongly argues that support for the right of migrants to freedom of movement is the same as support for the free movement of capital. The implication he draws from this association is that in curbing the right of people to move freely we would also be restraining the domination of capital.

Supporters of the new LCFM take pretty well the opposite view on this point: in the world of actually-existing capitalism the gains that have been won for the rights of people to move across the world as migrants have to be counted as advances – limited and partial though they might be – for the working class. It is because capital has the right to move so freely that the right of wage earners to move within labour markets to position themselves for the available job opportunities has always been fundamental to the socialist cause. 

The modern working class emerged in the 18th and 19th century in struggles that pitched migrants escaping from rural poverty against laws that penalised the poor and the unemployed for the crime of vagabondage. The congregation of these masses of people in city tenements and the factories and workshops during the age of the Industrial Revolution was seen as the opportunity to bring about sweeping, progressive change in the world and to bring to an end the bonds of feudalism that tied the servant and the tradesperson to the master.

Pavett claims that supporters of  free movement will not have heard of the notion of the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’, which he believes British workers need to be protected against. Of course the existence of the reserve army has been a feature of socialist analysis since its earliest times and was used to very powerfully to explain how the capitalist social and economic order came into existence.

However, as far as I am aware, no significant figure engaged in this pioneering work responded to this challenge by saying that those who were being dispossessed of their livelihoods in rural areas should be confined to the parishes of their birth in order that their counterparts in towns and cities might benefit from this artificially induced shortage of labour. On the contrary, socialism distinguished itself by appealing to the interests of the entire class of working people and calling on all toilers to transcend sectional interests and instead strive for the unity of all wage slaves.

Yet the opponents of freedom of movement are urging the rejection of this class-based socialist response.  Freedom of movement means that working people who find themselves living in regions of chronic disadvantage and high unemployment are able to move to places where they would be able to find work and improve their lot. The denial of rights to this one group of workers in order to support the privileges of another is inimical to any form of socialism which has the emancipation of the working class as its objective. This is a principle that ought to guide us as we think about the issues that confront us in the modern world.

The critical insight being offered by supporters of LCFM, entirely missed by Pavett, is that fifty years of neoliberal economic polices across the world have created labour markets in which the workers of different countries have been obliged to compete with one another in order to have access to a decent standard of living. This has come about not merely through the effects of migration, but as a consequence of access gained to labour markets abroad through strategies that hinge on the outsourcing of jobs, foreign direct investment and other approaches that aim at getting access to the labour of workers across the world.

The operation of a ‘reserve army of unemployed’ effect is achieved in the modern world not only through immigration, but in the demand which capitalism places on all workers to make their labour available at wage levels that bear comparison with those paid in Bangladesh, China and Indonesia. No migration is needed to make the impact of this reserve army felt on the living standards of British workers: the effect can be felt just as powerfully as when they remain exploited in manufacturing  and outsourced back-office service jobs in Dhaka, Shenzen or Java.

From this perspective, the right of free movement is a redress which labour can use to counter the predations of capital. It provides a response to the damage done by highly mobile businesses which run supply chains that extend across the planet by insisting on a right to free movement for labour which is the equal to that claimed by capital.

For sure a labour movement that supports freedom of movement will need to do more than simply proclaim a right to cross borders.  It will need to create an environment and a culture within its own class organisations that welcomes the newcomers and provides them with the tools and resources they will need to resist the forms of exploitation to which migrants are particularly vulnerable.

The plain fact is that the labour movement in Britain is only at the very beginning of organising itself for this task and much work needs to be done if we are to forge unity out of the current strands of diversity.  The Labour Campaign for Free Movement has been explicit on this point, making it clear in its founding statement that it stands for strong trade unions and massive investment in council housing, public services and infrastructure. Our vision is of migrant and UK – born workers fighting alongside side each other to make this happen, rather than one group allegedly prospering from the other’s lack of access to rights and opportunities to play a full role in society.

The discussions which have led to the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement have concerned themselves with exactly this task of strengthening the labour movement so that it is better equipped for the battles of the 21st century. David Pavett prefers to sell us the idea that migrant workers are nothing more than agents of the neoliberal capitalism system. His desire to promote the most grievous and deep divisions between the working class puts him on the side of the most reactionary elements of global capitalism, choosing to defend national privileges whilst having nothing to say about global exploitation.

Don Flynn, a former Director of the Migrants Rights Network

Left Futures

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