It is work, not dole, that draws migrants to the UK

Not in my wildest and wackiest imaginings could I have conceived that, at the beginning of the 21st century, a boatload of wage slaves, packed shoulder to shoulder, covered in vomit and ankle-deep in shit, with women giving birth on board, would be discovered in the heart of Europe.

That is how we Caribbean people started out around 500 years ago. We did not volunteer. We had to be captured, stripped and whipped. Yet the Kurds trapped in that sinking ship, grounded off the French Riviera, paid substantial sums of money ($2,000 for adults, it was reported) to ensure their own enslavement. I suppose there is no equivalent in history.

This recent event has forced me to reorganise my thinking on the vexed issue of economic and political refugees. Let's admit at once: if that ship had landed in Southampton, all of its passengers - bar those trapped in post-natal difficulties - would have found jobs within a week.

There is a shortage of labour in certain areas of the UK economy, involving jobs that those of us who have been here for 40 years or so, and our offspring, refuse to do. Take the catering industry, which seems to be expanding by leaps and bounds: it is replete with asylum-seekers of every hue, size and shape. They work for about £100 a week, from sunup to sundown, and bring their friends and family into this hive of oppression. They populate large, small and medium dry-cleaners. They travel miles in "the white van", peddling tea towels, carpets and all that falls off the backs of lorries. The tallyman has returned to the economic lives of the working classes.

After six months or so, they purchase an old banger, having acquired a smattering of English, and they are in the minicab business. And they come from everywhere: the Balkans, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Algeria, Rwanda. Theatres of war produce asylum- seekers by the thousands. Capital draws labour like an unrelenting magnet. The international grapevine pinpoints the UK as a major centre for instant employment. Word spreads to every tiny village in eastern Europe. And it is not difficult to cross that space between Calais and Dover.

Many of those British truckers who complain about the price of petrol and boast about their loyalty to the Union Jack are busily engaged in the illegal trade in human flesh. I am told by a very reliable source that a truckload of human flesh is worth a pretty penny. Even those who pose as National Front supporters have been accused of transporting migrants.

This whole business has been transformed into a growing industry. Truckers reap much bigger profits if they deal in cigarettes and human flesh rather than run-of-the-mill agricultural produce.

This is a clear example of how economics buttresses and even transforms political ideas. Right now, nationalism is being undermined by the needs of capital. Human labour is now international. No flag-waving here.

The influx is so vast that it keeps wages down and pauperises the working class as a whole. Yet labour is needed not only in the dark corners of industry, but also under the bright lights. Nurses come from Spain and the Philippines, teachers from the Caribbean and elsewhere.

The one abiding feature of the immigrant down the ages is the burning desire to work. The attraction of England is not the dole, despite what the tabloids would have you believe: it is the availability of work. As a former economic migrant, I can recount book and chapter on that. Yet Barbara Roche, the Home Office minister responsible for immigration and asylum, babbles every other day about her capacity to stem the tide, in a desperate attempt to satisfy Middle England.

She is a stand-up comedian. A joker. This invasion of human labour is drawn inexorably into the arms of capital. They are made for each other, and they are unstoppable.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more