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Friday, February 17, 2017

The EU is a Class Issue

“It is the responsibility of the patriot to protect his country from its government.” Thomas Paine

Class war may have ended but there is still the politics of class and this includes perceptions of the European Union (EU). Generalisations are always that but there is a distinct likelihood that the middle and working classes will vote very differently over continued membership of the EU.

The majority of the middle class see the EU as a wide canvas, and can buy-in to slogans like ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ (BSE). They accept that the EU is a work-in-progress, albeit a slow one, and can identify with the aspiration to make the EU more democratic and more accountable. It is a place where they can work if they choose to, and being in the EU is part of belonging to a modern, culturally cosmopolitan society. There are opportunities to travel, have holidays, and before returning home, buy good French wines and cheeses at prices much cheaper than in the UK. They meet Europeans working in the UK, especially London, who are educated, speak good English, have good jobs and fit seamlessly into their middle class society. And sometimes they are grateful to be able to cheaply employ eastern European women as child minders or domestics.

Diametrically opposed to this vision of enlightenment is the working class nightmare of east European workers driving down wages and taking their jobs. It doesn’t matter to the working class that there are nearly as many British citizens living in the rest of the EU as there are EU citizens living in Britain.1 They’re not going to get well-paid white collar jobs in Europe, and it is their blue collar jobs, in their home towns, that are under threat from eastern European labour. Their interest is purely to protect their own jobs in their own backyards. They know that when the supply of workers increases, there are more workers chasing the same number of jobs and wages go down. They know that recruitment for many jobs is via agencies and gang masters, who only recruit Eastern European nationals. They know that more and more jobs are minimum wage and/or zero hours contracts. They know that their minimum wages are often only barely sufficient because of tax credits and/or housing benefit.  And most of all they know that eastern European workers often work for less than the minimum wage.

Recently, Channel Four News2 went undercover to secretly film how badly eastern European workers, mainly Romanians, were treated at Nickle Farm, part of F W Mansfield & Son, the largest fruit growing, packing and storage operation in the UK. Their customers include Sainsburys, Waitrose, Marks & Spencers and Aldi but their exploited workers work for Pro Force Recruitment, and are paid the minimum wage, but like the three-card trick, they don’t receive the minimum wage! There are deductions for the filthy caravan accommodation where they live, for transport to the fields or packing sheds, and to cap it all, they have paid in Romania for the privilege of coming to Britain to be exploited!

Leaving the EU and getting rid of EU labour will mean a vast reduction in the number of workers chasing each job. The hope for the British worker is that the demand for labour will be greater than the supply, and with a bit of luck, demand for labour will increase strongly enough for wages to rise and conditions improve! Are these workers racist? Maybe some are, but mainly they are just doing their best to survive, and look after their families in a world that has changed rapidly, a world where the old certainties have disappeared and a world that for them has changed markedly for the worse.

The government could help British workers by simply ensuring that the minimum wage – preferably a genuine living wage – was properly enforced. That enforcement would include companies employing and paying workers directly, not paying agencies and gang masters. But they know this Government will never do this. Big business funds the Tory Party and big business has an insatiable demand for an ever-increasing supply of cheap labour and the cheapest labour is from Eastern Europe.

The reality is that the founding principles of the EU, namely the free movement of capital, goods and services and labour are no longer compatible with a socially just, egalitarian EU. The EU is definitely a class issue, and voting to leave the EU will temper and, hopefully, end the race to the bottom that is facing the British working class.

Michael Gold



2Channel 4 News Monday 19th & Tuesday 20th October 2015

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