The new serfs

They come from all corners of the globe, but only when they meet their strange, lonely deaths, as th

Every feudal order has its serfs. In the kingdom of UK retail, they are the invisible labourers who, underpaid, unprotected and overworked, provide the muscle that moves the economy. But they do much more than just grease the profits of a few retailers. Cleaning offices, building houses (then looking after both house and baby), waiting in hotels, selling sex, picking fruit, harves- ting vegetables and digging for cockles, the disavowed ranks of migrants bear the burden of supporting our jobs and lifestyles.

Their serfdom is a particularly brutal modern variant, lacking any of the medieval sense of reciprocity and paternalistic responsibility. In the 14th century, serfs could enjoy up to 80 public holidays a year and take enough time off to go on pilgrimages. Fifteen weeks' work a year could secure a livelihood and, along with a little military duty, the protection of the lord.

Today, often sold into bonded labour through the cost of paying their traffickers, Britain's invisible, illegal migrant workers appear to us in their full vulnerability only when we learn of their frequently bizarre deaths. Zhang Guo Hua drops dead, after working a 24-hour shift in a Hartlepool factory putting the name Samsung on to microwave ovens. Three young men are killed in a van crushed by the 7.03 train from Hereford to London - variously reported as Kurds, Iraqis or Arabs, they were off to pick onions in the West Midlands. Fifty people are suffocated among boxes of tomatoes in the back of a lorry. A 47-year-old Ukrainian working as a cleaner in London's Cafe Royal is found dead in a broom cupboard; he was living there to save money, because he sent all he earned to relatives. Then 19 Chinese people drown in the mudflats of Morecambe Bay on a miserable day in February.

It could be the opening interior dialogue for a detective film, as the investigator tries to work out the connection between apparently unrelated deaths. Then the penny drops. A serial killer is at work. The murderer turns out to be our deep hypocrisy about immigration.

Whenever criticisms are levelled at retailers such as the big four supermarkets, the first line of defence is to point out that they provide cheap food to the general public. But the rule of "no free lunch" operates here as elsewhere. We have merely evolved a system better at hiding, or distancing, cause from consequence. In the name of modern retailing methods, farms go out of business, communities collapse, jobs are lost, habitats for plants and animals get destroyed, and now people are dying, too.

Martin Luther King Jr once observed that "before you finish eating breakfast this morning, you've depended on more than half the world". Now, not content with a flow of cheap commodities such as coffee, tea and cocoa from the global south, we want our tables set as well.

Migrant labour in all its forms, legal and illegal, is characteristic of economic globalisation. There are an estimated 120 million migrant workers worldwide. Many travel between developing countries in Asia and Latin America. According to the International Labour Organisation, more than $100bn a year flows in the form of remittances, about double an average year's global aid budget. This workforce is increasingly female and does work that is typically dirty and dangerous. But at the other end of the migrant labour flow, developing countries are losing between 10 and 30 per cent of their qualified workers to countries such as Britain, where they keep our hospitals and schools running.

Migrant labour in the UK has increased 44 per cent in the past seven years. Some of it is "managed" through seasonal agricultural schemes, enabling workers to find jobs in labour-intensive, low-wage sectors such as tourism, domestic help, agriculture, meat- and fish-packing. In Britain, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 gangmasters do the organising and at least 1,000 are illegal, providing no protection to their workers. Altogether, they control as many as 100,000 workers. Long chains of subcontractors, commercial confidentiality and contractual obfuscation allow household-name retailers to hide behind plausible denials. As is so often the case, it is a trend that crossed the Atlantic. Wal-Mart was taken to court by nine cleaners who were working illegally. They claim that Wal-Mart knew their immigration status and conspired with the cleaning firm to keep pay low.

In 2003, a Commons committee reported on conditions among migrant labourers. Workers were sleeping ten to a room and living in buildings with no toilet, kitchen or washing facilities. People working in packing houses producing supermarket ready-prepared food were being paid just above half the minimum wage. Unlike the pace of life in the rural, feudal Britain of long ago, a modern supermarket packing house will keep going 364 days a year, 24 hours a day. The committee accused the supermarkets of taking a "see no evil" approach, in effect encouraging illegal labour by driving prices to suppliers down to the point where legal workforces were unaffordable.

There is growing pressure for regulation. A licensing scheme for gangmasters, introduced in 1973, actually existed until 1994, when the Conservative government dropped it. Now, Jim Sheridan MP, with the support of the Transport and General Workers' Union, has introduced a private members' bill to establish a new scheme. In the wake of the Morecambe Bay deaths, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has lent his backing. A statutory licensing scheme has existed for the private security industry since 2001.

Despite muted sympathy for migrant labourers, they are still somehow seen as a burden, when the truth is the opposite. Home Office research shows that in a single year, migrants, including asylum-seekers and refugees, contributed £2.5bn more to the economy than they cost in taking up services. In the US, the National Research Council has estimated that first-generation migrants cost the country $3,000, but the second generation give back many times more to the national coffers - $80,000 over a lifetime. The right-wing US think-tank the Cato Institute calls migrant workers "the lubricant to our economy".

Here, migration is one of the few social forces that prevents the spread of ghost towns, created largely by the very same supermarkets that make such high profits out of migrant labour. As in the countryside, so in the towns and inner cities: immigrant labour is prepared to work in parts that others have given up on. By so doing, they often drive up local wages and employment. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Asian people are twice as likely as white people to be involved in autonomous start-ups; Caribbean people three times as likely; and Africans nearly five times as likely. The reason is not just the discrimination that keeps migrants out of regular jobs, but the entrepreneurial mindset that it takes to establish a life abroad in the first place. Good for them, and good for the country.

But the highly politicised, and often hysterically reported, issue of migration plays out in a much bigger historical picture. Decades of failed economic advice from financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have left many developing countries wrecked or creaking. On top of that, the global commodities trade has experienced market failure on an enormous scale. After being told to export your way to economic recovery, imagine the chagrin of a coffee-producing country on discovering that prices have fallen 73 per cent in the past 20 years.

Economic migration, then, can be seen as a logical search for opportunity denied at home. It is certainly nothing new. Lawrence James, in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, recalls Robert Southey's imperial daydreams in which "superfluous men and women, unwanted by reason of their poverty or criminality", travel east and west to make their living in new worlds. Most emigrants from Britain travelled willingly, and the wealth they found or took put the empire on its pedestal.

Which leads us, in an age when all rich-country governments are publicly committed to global poverty eradication, to one of two conclusions. We should wholeheartedly encourage migrant labour and aggressively protect the rights of economic migrants. Or if we do not want that, we should redistribute wealth globally.

It is now almost platitudinous to bemoan the double standards of governments that argue for the free movement of goods and capital while imposing ever more severe restrictions on the movement of people. But some platitudes bear repeating. The criminal element of the migrant labour market, which led to the Morecambe Bay deaths, is driven partly by the unrealistic expectations of cheap goods created by retailers, but also by an over-restrictive and hypocritical immigration policy.

We may have to accept that the age of passports and border controls has passed its zenith. The passport, after all, is quite a recent invention. The word was first mentioned in England in 1548, and referred specifically to soldiers in the act of warfare. During the 18th and 19th centuries, governments across Europe were mostly relaxed about passport or other paper identification controls. Things tightened up only with the First World War.

Now, in the enlarging European Union, old national passports have been replaced by a standard member-state format. Passports designed for travel within trading blocs may become the model for border control. The issue then becomes not the policing of borders, but the collective protection of people's rights in their workplaces, wherever they happen to be.

It may be enlightened self-interest that finally persuades us to act. Exposure of the "gloom and horror" endured by European migrant labourers in Chicago's meat-packing houses led to a pres-idential inquiry and a new law to regulate the trade. But that was in 1906, after The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's novel about the trade, was published. There was, to be sure, sympathy for the exploited workforce. But the buying public had another concern: the quality of the meat they were eating. As someone once said, history teaches us nothing - but it punishes us for not learning its lessons.

Andrew Simms is policy director of the New Economics Foundation

The facts about migration

There are roughly 100 million migrants and 20 million refugees in the world today. Two-thirds of the world's refugees and migrants are displaced to other developing countries. Few refugees make it to Europe. In the UK, the number of illegal immigrants is estimated variously at 40,000 (Migration Watch) and "low thousands" (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants).

Where from? (to UK, 2002)

Iraq: 14,570

Zimbabwe: 7,655

Afghanistan: 7,205

Somalia: 6,540

China: 3,675

Turkey: 2,835

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: 2,265

Where to?

Turks and Kurds: London (Haringey and Hackney), Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds

Somalis: London (Tower Hamlets)

Chinese: London (Soho) and Norfolk

Afghans: London (Acton, Harrow)

Algerians: London (Finsbury Park)

Sri Lankans: London (East Ham)

Kosovars: London (Southall)

When?

1937: 4,000 Basques flee Franco's Spain

1933-39: 50,000 Jews flee Nazi Europe

1939: 100,000 flee north-west Europe

1945-60: 50,000 flee the eastern bloc

1956: 21,000 Hungarians flee invasion

1972: 28,000 Asians expelled from Uganda arrive in the UK

1973-79: 3,000 Chileans flee Pinochet

1975-92: 24,000 "boat people" flee Vietnam

1992-96: 2,500 Bosnians flee war

1995-99: 4,000 Kosovars flee FRY

Occupational trends

Catering, cleaning/launderettes, caring, building and construction, gardening, seasonal agriculture

Tragedies

Feb 2004: 19 Chinese cocklers drown

June 2001: a 21-year-old Pakistani dies falling from a Heathrow-bound plane

Dec 2000: two Cubans fall from a plane heading for Gatwick

June 2000: 58 Chinese asphyxiate in a truck bound for Dover

Oct 1996: Indian man falls from a Heathrow-bound plane

Additional research by Alexander Monro and Tawfiq Chahboune