Does migration undermine workers’ rights? A case study from waste management

Kate Bradley asks what labour stratification in the waste management industry tells us about British capitalism – and whether ‘managed migration’ would be the answer to the sector’s poor working conditions.

Sort-line operatives working in a MRF in the Czech Republic (Photo: Michal Maňas via Wikimedia Commons)

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s speech last week on big companies’ abuse of migration, many media outlets including The Guardian have published critical responses. A New Statesman article somewhat misrepresents Corbyn in their headline, implying that he thinks migrant workers “destroy” conditions for British workers. Quoted in full, what he said he opposed was “the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions”, a view that mirrors the position of many key unions, including Unite. For example, last year Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey described EU immigration as “a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers”.

Though more nuanced than the New Stateman’s headline implied, Corbyn’s angle on migration in the Brexit discussions is still a significant compromise with anti-immigrant rhetoric and a move away from his previous commitment to the free movement of people, which he spoke about during the lead-up to the EU referendum. Though the new rhetoric refocuses anger on the bosses who bring in low-paid migrant labour, it does little to defend the rights of migrants against hostile and antagonistic policy and public attitudes. It aims to deflect personal suspicion and criticism from foreign workers themselves, but it continues to hold up freedom of movement as a problem.

In his comments, Corbyn also presented EU workers as helpless victims of exploitation rather than as people who have made a valid choice about where to live and work – and people who could be fighting for their own rights if union organisation were strengthened and racism driven out of union culture. We know from examples like the industrial disputes at the oil refinery in Fawley that workforces are stronger when migrant workers unionise and fight for better pay and conditions alongside British-born workers. We cannot roll back globalisation, but we can fight back when bosses use it to boost their power over their workforce through divide-and-rule management strategies.

As well as undermining the agency of migrant workers, Corbyn’s position leads to an untenable apathy towards the violence of border enforcement. To run a system of ‘managed migration’ in an unequal world, governments must inevitably spend millions on policing borders, running detention centres and violently deporting migrants. This is something the anti-immigration wing of the Labour left choose to conveniently ignore. Corbyn’s first act as leader of the Labour Party was to attend the ‘Refugees Welcome’ demonstration in London in 2015, but his own proposals on migration would make a mockery of the principles of freedom that he supposedly advocated that day.

Jeremy Corbyn addresses the ‘Refugees Welcome’ demonstration, 2015 (Photo: Steve Eason)

A case study from waste management

The waste management industry, though unglamorous, is exemplary of the tendencies that pervade British capitalism today. The industry has been subject to increased privatisation in recent years, with private companies taking over public contracts from local authorities to provide the same waste disposal and recycling services but now for profit. The most well-known companies like Veolia and Biffa boast multi-billion pound turnovers. Green policies such as increases on the landfill tax for companies and councils disposing of their waste have altered the face of the industry since the 1990s, leading to a huge boost to the private recycling and energy-from-waste industry. This boost has coincided with a rise in the rate of migration from the EU and weakened labour movement in the UK, both of which have been exploited by employers to maximise profits.

Recruitment contractors such as Smart Solutions have been set up to seek out migrant workers to do the UK’s lowest-paid and lowest-status work, including in waste management but also in construction, distributions and food packaging. All of these are sectors with a heavy reliance on migrant labour according to Migration Observatory figures. In the waste sector, companies like Smart Solutions make their money by recruiting an almost exclusively Eastern European workforce on short-term contracts to man their large Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs). And this model is profitable: to use Smart Solutions as an example, in the last five years their turnover has grown by £50m to £90m a year, resulting in a £13.1m gross profit in 2016.

Working in MRFs is a dirty and undesirable job. It is poorly paid and has a very high staff turnover. Sort-line operatives are expected to sort through the rubbish as it makes its way through the sorting process. Others operate, clean and maintain the machines. Most workers are in the facility for more than eight hours a day with minimal time for breaks, and they are employed almost exclusively on zero-hours contracts. As a result, in weeks with less work, many people find themselves with reduced hours or none at all. Hundreds of people can be employed in each of these facilities. The work is not only dirty, but dangerous: 14 people sustained fatal injuries at work in the waste management sector in 2016, making it the 4th most dangerous sector after construction, agriculture and manufacturing – noticeably sectors that also depend heavily on migrant labour. One such worker, Polish-born Viridor employee Rafal Swiadek, was killed by a ballistic separator at a MRF in Milton Keynes in 2016. Similar deaths, such as that of 39-year-old Zbigniew Galka, have been blamed on poor training and health and safety procedures.

It does not surprise me that there are many deaths in these sectors, nor that they are generally ignored by the majority of Britain’s media. My experience working in the waste management sector gave me a sense that employers and the public generally saw workers in these unglamorous jobs as interchangeable and disposable. At my workplace, sort-line operatives arrived and left together, wore identical uniforms, and management often mispronounced their names or did not know them at all. Disciplinary procedures for mistakes were strict and often dehumanising. Many of our Eastern European and black British workers reported racism on and off the job, including from managers.

The workforce in waste management is stratified into three tiers. In the top tier there are CEOs and managers, whose institutional culture is often deeply sexist and racist and as cutthroat as anywhere else in capitalism, despite the industry’s eco-friendly green sheen. In the second tier, there are lower-paid office workers, administrators, and mostly British-born manual workers; they tend to be directly employed by a large, fairly reputable company and have some union organisation and ‘privileges’ such as pensions and holiday pay. In the lowest tier, cleaning, security, and unskilled manual labour such as sort-line operations are outsourced to contractors. The sort-line operatives are mainly from the EU while the cleaning and security staff are mostly migrants from non-EU countries in South America, Africa or Asia.

This tiering allows for smooth functioning from management’s point of view, since they can distance themselves and their companies’ reputations from the complaints and legal challenges of their underpaid, overworked employees. The tiering is carried through into the everyday experience of workers: in my experience at a MRF, each tier of staff even ate their lunches in different places onsite and rarely socialised together. This allowed the divisions between different tiers of staff to undermine solidarity and unity in the workplace, an added bonus for the employer in a sector that was once highly organised.

Plastic and metal cans recycling machine (Photo: Richard Hoare/ – cc-by-sa/2.0 )

What conclusions does this lead us to?

On the face of it, the way the waste management industry has changed in recent decades appears to back up Corbyn’s argument that employers have used migration to undermine working conditions and reduce pay for migrant and British-born workers alike. Waste has gone from being a highly organised sector to one in which unions are weak and a large amount of work is outsourced and especially exploitative, and the experience of the workplace is one of alienation and division. Where unions are present, officials have reported ‘deplorable’ treatment of foreign workers, but if my experience is anything to go by, the majority of migrant workers in the sector remain unorganised and awful conditions continue, unseen and unreported. This weakens the entire workforce of the sector since it makes industrial action less powerful and easier to ignore.

However, these problems are clearly symptoms of the weakness of unions and migrants’ rights, not the fault of individual migrant workers or increased migration in the abstract. As the unions Unite, GMB and UCATT proved in their disputes with waste company Sita UK in 2015, language barriers and low levels of organisation can be overcome to identify and combat exploitative employment practices. It takes commitment from the unions, solidarity from other staff and sensitivity to workers’ precariousness, but it can be done. Satnam Virdee’s book Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider shows how migrants have played a key role in workers’ struggles throughout British history, and so they shouldn’t be seen as external to the battles which have been fought and won by the working class as a whole. Migrants are as much a part of Britain’s workforce as women are. As rs21’s Ian Allinson points out:

Giving different rights to different workers based on their nationality is discriminatory and divisive. It undermines solidarity. Blocking employers hiring on the basis of nationality would repeat the mistake of some trade unionists of a previous generation who sought to control the labour supply by excluding women from some jobs, fearing “they” would push down “our” wages.

Waste management and the Brexit negotiations

The processes that takes Britain out of the EU will undoubtedly have a huge effect on the waste management sector. Brexit will likely affect environmental legislation, which threatens the green sector’s subsidies and privileges, and it also endangers their employment model. The Conservative Party still appear confused about what sort of deal they want. On the one hand, they want to pacify their racist and nationalist voters by proving themselves ‘tough on immigration’; yet by restricting EU migration, they would anger big companies including recruiters like Smart Solutions by threatening their lucrative business model. The Tories will probably militate for continued unskilled migration but on similar draconian terms to non-EU migrants. This is the worst possible scenario, as it will leave workers even more precarious, unions just as weak, and free employers from the need to adhere to EU protections and oversight on human rights and health and safety. To truly support workers, Labour must use the Brexit negotiations to offer something totally different, not simply a watered down version of Tory immigration policy like we saw under New Labour.

One of the ways they could do this would be to force employers who use the business model of ‘importing’ foreign workers to employ their workers on better conditions with increased union coverage. It would also be important to strengthen workers’ right to organise in the workplace by scrapping the Tories’ recent anti-trade union laws, and ending tribunal fees to increase access to justice (in line with a recent Supreme Court decision). Corbyn seems broadly onboard with this strategy. However, this cannot change much if migrants do not feel secure enough to be able to claim their rights and defend themselves, so it necessarily also involves making workers freer and less precarious by reducing the intensity of immigration controls. Fresh controls don’t just affect new migrants: they make existing residents who were not born in the UK vulnerable to suspicion, detention and deportation, and so allow employers to attack their rights more easily – or to use workers’ uncertain status to threaten and manipulate them. Sanctions on individual migrants weaken the labour movement as well as being morally indefensible.

One of the key things that has kept migrants coming to do Britain’s dirty work is the differential between the pound and migrants’ home currencies, which allows for the hope that some money might be saved and sent abroad. Following the Brexit referendum, an increase in visible racism and a decrease in the value of the pound, this option has become less attractive for many workers. In 2016, remittances – i.e. money sent home by workers abroad – sent from Britain to Lithuania decreased by 20%, with depreciation in the British pound cited as a reason. This has already led to decreasing EU immigration: reports suggest that 2016 saw 25,000 fewer Poles and other Eastern Europeans coming to work in Britain and a 16,000 rise in those leaving. Migration policy should therefore not take for granted that there will always be an abundance of workers seeking entry into the UK to replace its workforce. Nevertheless, migrants will continue to come to the UK for as long as it offers the promise of a decent quality of life, and the choice for legislators and the government is whether this is done illegally – to everyone’s detriment – or safely and legally, with support where needed.


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