Immigration and Global Capitalism


On Mayday over 1 million workers staged marches in cities across the US against the immigration bill passed by the US congress. This bill, which was passed in December 2005, will turn illegal immigrant workers into criminals and open the way for their deportation. It also proposes the use of greater force to keep illegal immigrants out of the US; the US/Mexico border is to be sealed with a high-tec fence and patrolled by the military.

Although the majority of the marchers were themselves immigrants they were joined by hundreds of thousands of US workers in a tremendous show of solidarity. The following day the protests were continued with strikes and boycotts and again it was estimated that over 1 million took part.

The resistance to the attempts by a section of the US ruling class to reverse the flow of immigrant workers comes at a time when immigration into the European Union (EU) has again been in the headlines. During May 7400 arrived in the Spanish Canary Islands and another 850 were washed ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa, while Malta, Cyprus and Greece have also experienced a fresh wave of arrivals. These people have arrived from Central Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, notably Iraq, in boats which are hardly seaworthy. Since 1993 over 6000 migrants have died trying to get into the EU.

These migrants are moving to join the ranks of the US and EU working class. The desperate conditions from which they are escaping are indicated by the fact that they are risking their lives to get away. As we have pointed out in previous texts on this question1 the existence of massive global immigration shows beyond all argument the international character of the working class. The various nation states of the capitalist world belong to the bourgeoisie and exist to protect their capital; they do not belong to the working class. The working class is international and global. The divisions of nationality and race are secondary divisions imposed by the bourgeois class and are shown to be secondary by the existence of immigration. Capitalism treats workers as a source of labour power, and is interested only in the price of this labour power, not its nationality or race. Capitalism is itself continually forcing workers to move across national boundaries to sell their labour power to survive. We salute the demonstrations in the US as they represent a small step towards recognising that all workers are united on the basis of class and that solidarity of all workers is the only way to resists the attacks of the bourgeois class on workers living standards.

The bourgeois class is, however, itself divided on the issue of immigration. It is clear that sections of the US bourgeoisie are very happy with the existence of a large pool of illegal immigrant workers since they reduce the value of wages throughout the economy. The US senate has, in fact, recently passed its own immigration bill which is contrary to that of the Congress. The Senate bill would provide a partial amnesty and open the way to citizenship if the illegal immigrants pay back taxes. The contradictory nature of these two bills has not yet been reconciled. The only thing they share is recognition of the need to control the flow of immigrants.

The divisions in the US bourgeoisie are mirrored in the European ruling class. These divisions are, in fact, simply and ideological reflection of the contradictory nature of the demands of the capitalist economy. On the one hand the capitalist class needs to lower the costs of labour power. To achieve this importing workers, who are prepared to work for starvation wages in dreadful conditions, and will not complain because of their illegal status is clearly desirable. On the other hand the general lowering of wages and deteriorating conditions together with unemployment is likely to produce social unrest. To forestall this, the bourgeoisie needs to keep workers divided from one another and pretend that the source of their problem is the foreign or illegal workers necessary to keep workers divided from one another and pretend that the source of their problems is the foreign or illegal workers. They need to direct the anger of the indigenous working class towards the immigrant workersto prevent it being turned on the exploiting class and the system which produces this inhuman world. To achieve this it is necessary to appear to be trying to clamp down on the immigrants through legislation which will make them appear as criminals.

Capitalism demands immigrant labour

The capitalism system of production requires the existence of a class of people who have no property and therefore have nothing to sell but their labour power. It cannot function as a system without such a class. To create this class capitalism destroyed the system of property which had existed in the feudal period converting serfs into wage labourers and then went on to industrialise agriculture and destroy the bulk of peasant agriculture, converting peasants into wage labourers. This produced migrations from the countryside to the cities and also between countries. The first large scale migrations of the capitalist era occurred in the second half of the 19th century. For example Irish migration to Britain in the 1840’s and 50’s numbered at least 600 000. (2) There was also large scale emigration from Britain itself to the US and the British colonies. In the period between 1840 and 1914, 19 million people emigrated from Britain. During this period, however, British capitalism required a massive increase in the numbers of the working class to match the massive increases in capital values, and, this exodus was more than compensated for by immigration to Britain and natural population increase. During this period the British population to doubled and had reached 41 million by the outbreak of the First World War. Worldwide the most dramatic flow of immigrants was, of course, that to the USA. In the period between 1870 and 1900 there were 20 million immigrants, increasing the size of the working class by approximately 40%. In addition to these flows of immigrants workers were also moved by state organised schemes. For example in the British Empire Indian and Chinese indentured workers were shipped to British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, Canada and other colonies. In South Africa, for example, over 100 000 Indians and 60 000 Chinese were shipped into the country to work the sugar plantations and the mines in the period from 1860 to 1910. The period leading up to the First World War was therefore a period of large scale migration of workers.

The period from the First World War to the start of the reconstruction boom following the Second World War saw a virtual halt to this process. This was largely due to the massive unemployment produced globally by the economic crisis and because the bourgeoisie attempted to manage the crisis by autarchic means which prevented most immigration. However, the reconstruction period of the 50s and 60s saw the return of large scale immigration to provide the workers required for the expansion of capitalism in the metropolitan countries. During these decades, in the UK for example, approximately 1.2 million workers were brought into the UK from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Similar movements of migrant workers occurred throughout Europe, the largest being the movement of Turkish workers to Germany and North African workers to France. With the ending of the reconstruction cycle in the early 70s this flow of immigrants was shut off while structural changes were made to the economies of the central capitalist countries. These changes, as we have shown elsewhere (3), led to greater internationalisation of capital and concerted attempts to reduce the value of labour power in the central countries themselves. From the start of the 80s capital has moved around the world more freely than ever before. It has moved to the peripheral countries to seek out the cheapest labour power available, while in the central countries capital has been moved to restructure production and for strategic positioning with regard to markets and tariff barriers.

Capital is today at the tail end of its third broad cycle of accumulation, the cycle which opened with the reconstruction period following the 2nd World War, and is suffering from the tendential fall in its profit rates. This fall in profit rates expresses itself in cycles of crisis. The problems for the system, which became apparent in the 70s, have been met by the present phase of globalisation. The free movement of capital to the peripheral countries has enabled a greater penetration of capitalism in these regions producing irreversible structural changes in their economies. While the exploitation of cheaper labour power in the periphery has increased profitability of capital’s operations globally, the complementary process whereby labour moves from the periphery to the central countries has tended to reduce the price of labour power in the capitalist heartlands. US wage rates, for example, are at the same levels as they were in the early 70s. New jobs created in the US since the establishment of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) have paid, on average, 23% less than the jobs lost with the relocation of existing industries to peripheral countries. The crisis which first appeared in the 70s has been attenuated by these measures and the tendency for profit rates to fall has been temporarily checked. This new phase of dealing with the crisis has brought with it a new period of massive global immigration.

Immigration to the central capitalist countries today

It is estimated that there are today 200 million migrant workers worldwide; more than ever before. (4) The number of foreign workers in the EU is estimated to be 6.4% of the total population, or 28 million, while in North America the equivalent figures are 12.9% or approximately 40 million. (5) In 2005 1.7 million migrants entered the EU, a number which is still considered insufficient for the needs of European capitalism. The French Institute for International Relations estimates that the minimum number of immigrant workers needed between 2000 and 2020 is 30 million. If less than this number come to the EU the economy will contract and to achieve growth far more are needed. The need for immigrant workers is reflected in the actions of individual countries. For example Spain, in 2005, declared an amnesty for illegal workers allowing 570 000 to gain the right to work in Spain and thus in the EU. Ministers in the British government are also dropping hints that a similar amnesty could be introduced. In the UK migrant workers now make up 10% of the country’s workforce and pay 10.2% of the total taxes. (6) The EU countries which appear to be restricting the influx of immigrant workers, such as Germany and France, are still making use of vast numbers of immigrant workers from Turkey and North Africa. The present restrictions are temporary and will be removed when changes are made to unemployment and welfare rights which would allow a net lowering of labour costs. (7)

A section of the immigrant workforce in all the central countries is what is called “illegal.” This means these workers have not got the correct documents entitling them to work. During the recent rows over illegal immigrants in the US and UK it was revealed that a significant percentage of the workforce was actually made up of “illegals.” In the US, in 2005, there were 7.2 million illegals, or 5% of the workforce. (8) In the UK there are estimated to be between 450 000 and 870 000 illegal workers or between 1.5% and 2.7% of the workforce. Despite all the indignation by a section of the ruling class at the numbers of illegal workers, the bourgeoisie in general likes to have illegal workers since they have no statutory rights and can be paid below minimum wages and set to work in the most atrocious conditions. The drowning of 23 illegal Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe bay in 2004 is just one example of the ruthless exploitation to which illegal migrants are subject.

Most migrant workers are employed in labour intensive areas of the economy such as construction, farming, food preparation or cleaning, where low pay, long hours and dangerous conditions are endemic. It is estimated that in London today 70% of the low paid jobs are done by immigrants or 29% of the capital’s total workforce is made up of immigrants. (9)

The central countries of capitalism need armies of low paid workers to keep their economies functioning. There is simply no way such vast numbers of immigrant workers could be present in these countries if the bourgeoisie did not want then there. If the ancient Romans and Chinese could keep people out of their empires with walls and guards, 21st century capitalism, with all its technology, could do this is it wanted to. They simply do not want to keep immigrant workers out. It does not matter whether the immigrants are legal or illegal, the real issue for the bourgeoisie is the lowering of the price of labour power and hence the increasing of the profitability of capital. This is how a spokesman from Ernst & Young, the accountants who operate the UK’s “Independent Treasury Economic Model” for predicting economic trends, described immigration and its effects,

The UK workforce has become younger, more flexible and economical, easing the pensions burden and keeping interest rates lower than many commentators could have predicted. Even with a modest rise in unemployment10 we are looking at a very favourable cost benefit ratio. (11)

Restructuring of peripheral economies and migration

The global strategy pursued by the central capitalist powers in the last 25 years has been extraordinarily successful in shifting the burden of the economic crisis onto the countries of the periphery. By means of loans and the rescheduling of these loans many of the peripheral countries have sunk into a position of “debt peonage.” They have debts they will never be able to repay. This has led to greater control of the economies of many of the peripheral countries by the central countries. Many have been forced to implement Structural Adjustment Plans (SAPs) devised in Washington by the World Bank and the IMF. As we have noted elsewhere, (12) these plans have had as their main elements, liberalisation and deregulation of markets, privatisation of state assets, reduction of state spending and welfare, reorientation of the economy to the export of cash crops or minerals to the world market. In 1983, for the first time ever, capital outflows from the peripheral countries exceeded capital inflows. It is now estimated that the peripheral countries export approximately $160 bn of capital to the developed countries annually. (13) These measures have produced massive changes in the structures of these economies. Many of the more profitable sections of these economies, even public utilities such as water and electricity, have passed into ownership of capitalist corporations of the central countries. By this means profits are extracted to the central countries. State employment has been massively reduced leading to unemployment of urban workers. However, the most significant of these changes is the ruination of large swathes of peasant agriculture leading to massive migration of people to the towns. In 2007, for the first time in human history, a greater number of the world’s population will live in cities than in the countryside. Table 1 illustrates the massive relative shift in population from 1950 to the present. In this period there has been an overall tripling of global population. However, while the rural population has increased by a factor of 1.9 the urban one has increased by a factor of 4.2.

For those countries which have remained outside “debt peonage”, such as India and China, the import of capital and internal capital accumulation have produced a similar ruin of the peasantry. (15) These developments have produced millions of property less people in desperate conditions. It is estimated, for example, that there are now 130 million landless ex peasants in China and in the whole world the figure is approximately 500 million. A further 400 million peasants own less land than they need to live on, if they are to remain above the threshold of poverty. (16) It is generally the case that the majority of these people cannot be integrated into wage labour in the peripheral countries themselves. They migrate to the cities and eke out an existence on the boundaries of capitalist society as a massive reserve army of labour. According to UN figures the percentages of city dwellers living in slums without clear water, sewage, electricity or other services is 40% for Asia, 61% for Africa and 31% for South America! Some of these people, the more able and determined, join the stream of migrants heading for the central capitalist countries.

In many ways this process is an echo of the process of expropriation of the agricultural population from the land in Europe. (17) On the one hand capitalism destroys the conditions of life of the agricultural population while on the other it integrates some of these people into capitalist production as wage workers. The ghastly conditions of work, long hours, child labour etc. which the European working class endured in the 19th century are today being reproduced on a more widespread scale in the periphery. Low pay and atrocious conditions of work are clearly the key to understanding the growth of economies such as Brazil, India and China. However, because the present period represents the end of a cycle of accumulation most of those made destitute by today’s expropriations are not destined to be integrated into wage labour under capitalism.

Year Total world population (bn) Total rural population (bn) Rural population as % of total Total urban population (bn) Urban population as % of total
1950 2.5 1.77 70.8 0.75 30.0
1975 4.06 2.53 62.3 1.54 37.9
2000 6.05 3.19 52.7 2.86 47.3
2005 6.44 3.26 50.6 3.17 49.2
2020 est 7.57 3.34 44.1 4.23 55.9
Table 1: Distribution of world population (1)

Communists and immigration

We have shown above how the present phase of immigration is a direct consequence of a more thorough going penetration of capital from the central countries into the peripheral ones. The attitude of the bourgeois class to immigration mirrors the contradictions within the system itself. On the one hand capitalism demands the lowest price for labour power while on the other it demands that the working class never unites to overthrow capitalist economic relations. It is equally clear that the only way capitalist economic and social relations can ever be overthrown is through unity of the global working class. This brief look at the present phase of immigration has demonstrated again the international character of the working class. It is for good reason that the Communist Manifesto ends with the words,

Workers of the world unite!

Workers are the dispossessed of history who have no alternative but to find a place to sell their labour power. Workers who travel between countries and continents to do this are simply expressing the essence of the working class, that ‘workers have no country.’ The migrations of today are not a temporary phase which will pass when global economic conditions stabilise, they are a continuation of processes which have been underway since the dawn of capitalism and which will only end with the establishment of a higher order of society, namely communist society. The question is, how can a communist society be established?

Workers who travel between countries are able to learn the languages of other workers and to absorb communist ideas. They are able to spread these ideas as they move. From the earliest times of the capitalist era political movements of the working class have been influenced by migrant workers. The Communist League, for example, which issued the Communist Manifesto, was a small group composed mainly of migrant workers with supporters in the Chartist movement and the artisans of Paris, who met in London to produce the Manifesto. The international character of the Manifesto was shown in that it was immediately published in English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish. Migrant workers are also more likely to show solidarity with workers of other countries as they have lived and worked with them and speak their language. A simple example of this is the fraternisation between English and German soldiers which occurred around Xmas 1914 in the early stages of the First World War. This was initiated by German migrant workers, who had been working in Britain, spoke English and whose class solidarity outweighed the bourgeois nationalism which accompanied the start of the carnage.

It is essential that struggles of migrant workers against attempts by the ruling class to criminalise and victimise them, such as we have seen in the US, should be fully supported. These are simply attempts to drive wedges between sections of our class to keep us under the yolk of capital. These attempts have undoubtedly increased with the so-called “war on terror” which provides the smokescreen behind which a new wave of repression is being launched. It is for this reason we consider the solidarity shown by US workers to their migrant brothers so important. Communists should welcome migrant workers today, as they have done in the past, and integrate them into a common struggle against the bourgeoisie. Communists support free movement of the working class since this can only produce greater unity and purpose in our class. Migrant workers are able to give the political organisations of the working class a true global character. They are thus able to bring nearer the day when this international class throws off its chains and undertakes the task of building a communist world.


(1) See RP 26 “Immigration “& RP 32 “Another step towards a European Imperialist Bloc”.

(2) See C P Hill British Economic and Social History.

(3) See RP 31 Africa - Showcase of capitalist decline.

(4) Quoted by BBC Newsnight 18/5/06.

(5) Quoted in Financial Times 18/5/06 from International organisation for Migration statistics.

(6) Institute of Public Policy Research. Quoted in “Independent” 31/3/06.

(7) This is discussed more fully in RP 32 “European Union Expansion”.

(8) See Independent 31/3/06.

(9) Ibid.

(10) UK unemployment was 1.6 million or 5.6% of the workforce in April 2006. National Office of Statistics.

(11) Adult Learning, Niace, May 2006 Volume 17 Number 9.

(12) See RP 31 Africa Showcase of capitalist decline.

(13) Figure for 2004 from Labour Resource and Research Institute website.

(14) See UN Report “World Urbanisation Prospects”

(15) The implementation of NAFTA since 1994 has produced widespread bankruptcy of Mexican peasantry.

(16) See RP 31 “The anti-globalisation movement at Cancun”.

(17) This process is very clearly described by Marx in Capital Volume 1 Chapters 27 to 33.

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