Voices: Jeremy Corbyn: We’ve heard a lot about immigration – but we will not end cheap labour by dividing workers

Last night, I had the great pleasure of attending an event in my constituency, “Being Black in Islington”. Islington is an ethnically diverse area; more than one in four residents are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

Islington’s diversity manifests in enormous inequality, a racial inequality that is invisibilised by those who continue to search for the “North London metropolitan elite”. I heard from several Black and minority ethnic constituents about the structural barriers they continue to face in employment, housing and healthcare.

I also heard about the collective resilience they have displayed in fighting back, a collective resilience that goes back decades. Colin Adams is the director of Brickworks Community Centre in Crouch Hill, which provides urgent assistance to those in need across the borough. His father, Neville, arrived in London in 1960 from Guyana.

Like so many others in the Windrush generation, Neville came to the UK on the promise of a warm welcome. Instead, he was met with overcrowded accommodation and rampant discrimination. In the face of systemic hostility, Neville trained as an electrical engineer, securing a job with Decca Electrics. After working for two years, Neville had saved enough money to pay for his wife, Daphne, to join him here.

Neville and Daphne were the building blocks of the British post-war economy. The Windrush generation ran the rail network. They kickstarted British businesses. They built the NHS – as commemorated by a statue outside Whittington Hospital in my constituency. They made this country a better place.

To this day, generations of those who have migrated here continue to keep this country going. Without immigration, this country would not function. It saddens me to see their ongoing contributions taken for granted. Recently, much has been said about British reliance on migrant labour. Much of this migrant labour – as it has been pointed out – is cheap, which undercuts and lowers wages for all. However, we will not end cheap labour by dividing workers and belittling migrants’ countless contributions.

Jeremy Corbyn at the Being Black in Islington event (Molly Edlin)
Jeremy Corbyn at the Being Black in Islington event (Molly Edlin)

Pitting British workers against migrant workers fragments an otherwise united and powerful working-class, to the benefit of those who exploit them. And dividing skilled workers from “unskilled” workers legitimises harsh – and often inhumane – restrictions on those who do not meet the state’s arbitrary criteria.

There is no such thing as unskilled labour – only labour that is undervalued, underappreciated and underpaid. Migrants are not commodities to be traded in business interventions. They are human beings to be respected, recognised and rewarded in all walks of life, just like anyone else.

There is no use lamenting low pay unless we are prepared to confront its root cause: greedy bosses, exploitative labour conditions and attacks on trade unions. That means defending an anti-racist economic policy that recognises – and rectifies – the enormous inequality that exists across both class and racial lines.

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Introducing a £15 minimum wage and ending the hostile environment are two sides of the same coin. The same can be said for ending zero-hours contracts and closing Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Or strengthening trade union rights and guaranteeing migrant voting rights.

Social justice is migrant justice. The richest in our society want nothing more than for workers to separate these struggles. We must be resolute in our struggle for what those at top fear most: unity.

“They were sold an image of London being bright and sunny”, Colin says of his parents, Neville and Daphne, when they arrived in the UK from Guyana. “They genuinely thought the streets were paved with gold.” Neville and Daphne weren’t wrong to think London was home to riches. It still is, it’s just in the hands of the 1 per cent. If we unite in our demand for transformative change, this country’s gold can be enjoyed by us all.