Columnists > The demands of labour must take priority over the demands of capital

14 July 2016 | by Clifford Longley

The demands of labour must take priority over the demands of capital


Resistance to migration is nothing new. African-Americans freed from slavery after the American Civil War migrated north to seek work in the Yankee industrial heartlands. They were soon competing for jobs, thereby creating tensions with the white working class. Many of those were Irish immigrants, who had themselves been treated with hostility when they arrived.

At the climax of Elizabeth Gaskell’s prophetic novel, North and South, published in 1855, the ruthless mill owner in the North of England tries to break a strike by importing Irish workers who are prepared to work for less than the strikers are demanding.

There are numerous examples of the same thing. The latest must surely be the UK’s EU referendum. Even if not every migrant was competing for work with the native workforce – some took jobs that the British had spurned – many did, causing resentment.

If labour is treated merely as a commodity to be bought and sold in a market place, when the supply exceeds the demand the price goes down until a new equilibrium is found. Unemployment is one possible outcome; a general depression of wage levels is the more likely result. That helps to control wage inflation. But even if it boosts GDP, it is a factor contributing to a low-wage, low-productivity economy. This is not the migrants’ fault; it is the system they are caught up in.


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