There is a debate about immigration taking place in the UK right now. It is not about ‘illegals,’ as with America’s 12 million ‘illegal’ immigrants nor is it nonsensical, like recent Australian headlines about eight boat people arriving on a remote island, or 139 Chinese workers receiving TAFE training that may eventually assist them to meet Australian migration requirements.
Rather, this debate comes close to being constructive.
There’s a chance it won’t remain enlightened, however, given the British Home Office’s wild underestimates of the scale of the current Eastern European influx into the UK, and the incompetence of the country’s Immigration and Nationality Directorate in employing illegal Nigerian workers as cleaners. But, for the moment at least, the Mayor of London with his thousands of posters reminding us that we are ‘LondONErs’ and should barrack for ‘London United’ is still more obvious and more convincing than the alternative.
Even the crudest Blair Government pragmatists back immigration. The Financial Times recently quoted a Government adviser as saying, ‘The Poles are great. They all work, they don’t want to kill us and their women don’t wear bags over their heads.’
Fears of pressure on local services, and of working-class neighbourhoods changing too quickly for their stalwarts to keep up are expressed through tabloid voices but these are the minority. Mostly the question is, ‘What did we ever do without them?’
‘Them’ do the majority of London’s outsourced cleaning, and much of its food preparation and plumbing. And the recent summer holidays have seen ‘them’ off on their foreign summer holidays leaving the Chloes, Felicitys, Henrys and, well, Ryans of London to scrub our own bathtubs and wait five minutes longer for our ‘Asian fusion’ lunches.
Confused? As well you might be. Ten years ago, people in my situation (renting with friends, comfortably-off professionals still snapping up specials at the supermarket) would not have been taking regular overseas holidays. But now we have cleaners, and they earn enough to take their own overseas holidays!
We pay Sveta, our cleaner, a little more than AUD$20 an hour (some colleagues pay their cleaners AUD$25 double the minimum wage.) Millions of such arrangements permeate the south of England forging a cross-Party, and somewhat cross-class consensus about immigration in the process. These arrangements bring home a very personal understanding of what immigration means to the British economy.
Lynton Crosby, who was John Howard’s campaign manager in 1998, 2001 and 2004 and most recently campaign manager for UK Conservative Party, thought he was on a winner in the 2005 UK election campaign with his ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ billboards. Instead, the Conservative base now relies on the Poles for their catered dinners and last-minute babysitting.
The free movement of labour is becoming real. People as well as capital and goods, are beginning to circulate at rapid rates.
Polish immigrants in the UK, according to The Polish Times
Cheap flights, surging economies, the internet and political projects like the European Union are facilitating a massive voluntary whirlwind of humans, the likes of which the world has never seen. No potato famines or night-time desert crossings here this time the diasporas are complex, two-way and, apart from their huge scale, difficult to get to grips with.
I’m recalling this at 5:45 am, perched on the platform of a rare, above-ground Underground station on the City’s edge. Here London’s tracksuited, determined Polish future waits with me for the morning’s first train. This is not the AUD$25-an-hour wedge of new immigration rather, most of these people are invisible, work before the sun is up and receive less per hour than what I am about to fork out for the privilege of my morning swim (AUD$15).
My next encounter with the Polish army is more hopeful. Swathed in purple smocks, they staff the achingly New Labour ‘public-private partnership’ contractors who manage the building where I work dishing out breakfast rolls as I stroll through the foyer. They keep the British Treasury building running like a Swiss Railways version of Yes, Minister. And, as they emerge in pairs from free workouts at our gym, into the awesome light-wells and high-ceilinged grandeur of the place, their choice to move to London seems to make sense.
As I head out for lunch, the Polska Gazette just emphasises how second-rung I’ve become as an antipodean immigrant. It’s flying off the newsstands, making TNT and Australian Times look like wallflowers at St James’s Park tube station. Twelve months ago, Polska Gazette didn’t even exist. Now it the centre of its own niche advertising industry.
My day ends on the Number 25 bus. It’s an improbably long, bendy, single-storey operation. It’s also known as the ‘free bus’ because you can get on for nothing via the back door, and because it carries mainly new immigrants. Here, you cannot fail to remember the initial shock that London’s in-your-face diversity produces in any antipodean newcomer. You actually see people with dark skin everywhere and tonight I counted six languages being spoken on my section of the bus.
The breadth of the new multiculturalism is further hinted at in last week’s Worksop Guardian , [link: ] a minor regional paper, which ran a seven-page insight into the ‘Polish Issue.’ Local journalists mused about the effect of a 72 per cent increase in Polish migrants in the past year on their small community. This was not ‘put up the shutters’ rhetoric it explained why the paper now has classified ads printed in Polish and visited new church socials aimed at Poles. Less happily, Westminster Council is now paying airfares home for homeless Poles who have struggled in the UK.
But Parties, businesses and unions of all stripes agree immigration of this kind is here to stay. The Trades Unions Congress even took the step of hanging up a ‘You’re welcome here’ sign at its televised, annual conference in September. The unions know that exploitation is the problem not whether the exploited were born in Britain or Poland.
They are right on both counts. I love our cleaner, and Sveta deserves the decent pay she gets. We won’t let go of her for the world we just wish she’d get back from the beach soon, because our bathroom is looking atrocious.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.