One of my neighbours has been ill recently, so some of us have been maintaining her garden for her. Are we helping her or not?
It seems like a stupid question. I ask because of how Janice Turner in the Times (£) describe how her old school friend, Dave, changed from being a leftie to a supporter of the English Democrats:
The company, a high street retailer, preferred [immigrant workers] to union members like him. The warehouse had "high bays", areas where vast palettes are stored 100ft up. To avoid people below being squished, they are off-limits to all but trained staff. But awash with pre-Christmas business, the company wanted to site "picking aisles" - where staff meander, putting together an order - beneath the high bays. The unionized British workers refused but, using immigrant agency labour, the company did it anyway.
This, as Dave tells it, was the start of his political disillusionment.
But the migrant workers are doing just what we're doing for my stricken neighbour. I am migrating from my house to my neighbour's to do a job she doesn't feel up to, just as they are migrating from Poland to Doncaster to do a job Brits don't feel like doing. So, why is my migrant labour seen as a help whereas Poles' labour is considered a menace?
First, the connection between migrants' labour and the benefits to others is less salient for Dave than it is between me and my neighbour. He doesn't see that the migrant labour is a complement to others' work - for example, the faster orders are put together, the more work their is for delivery drivers. And he doesn't see that, if immigrants work cheaper and faster than others, then prices are lower, which boosts customers' real incomes which allows them to spend more elswhere, thus creating jobs. Nor does he see that, ultimately, migrant labour might free him to take more productive work.
Secondly, whereas the effects of my labour fall upon a unified person - my neighbour - the effects of immigration take place in a class-divided society. For those in power, the benefits - high profits - are quick and easy. But for those at the bottom end of the labour market, they are less pleasant.
But it needn't be so. Imagine our retailer were a full-blooded worker coop. Workers would then think: "Isn't it great we don't have to that dangerous job now, so we can do nicer jobs and get a share of higher profits". And if redundancies are made, they'll be on better terms. (And of course, in a society not disfigured by class division, unemployment benefits would be higher).
In this sense, it is obvious that immigration - insofar as it does worsen the condition of some workers (which is easily overstated) - is a class issue. Rather than ask: "why are immigrants taking my job?" Dave could equally ask: "why are there class divisions which prevent the benefits of migration flowing to everyone?"
So, why is one question asked when the other isn't? The answer is that capitalist power doesn't just determine who gets what, but also what issues get raised and which don't. As E.E.Schattschneider wrote in 1960:
Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out. (quoted in Lukes, Power: A Radical View, p20)
In this way, it is immigrants who get scapegoated rather than capitalists.