Saturday, February 27, 2010

One Day Without Immigrants

On March 1st, migrant workers in France, Italy and Spain will go on strike to demonstrate the importance of their work and fight for their rights.

Last Wednesday's BBC documentary The Day The Immigrants Left, presented by Evan Davis, was one of the most instructive pieces of television as seen in quite a long time.

The experiment took place in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, a town hit by high-unemployment. Twelve Brits on the dole, some long-term, were offered a chance of filling the shoes of as many immigrant workers in the fields of food packaging, agriculture, catering and construction.

Best of all, the programme didn't pass judgement. The viewers could make up their mind over whether tabloid-based common places such as "the foreigners are stealing all our jobs" or "the British are lazy" have any foundation at all.

And the result was a mixed bag. There was the proud local carpenter displaying a work ethic that could give the most eager Lithuanian a run for his money. Also, two guys who turned up for work at a food packaging plant with a massive chip on their shoulders seemed quite determined to prove that it's the "foreigners"' fault and that British workers could do as well if only they were offered the chance.

Alas though, some simply couldn't be arsed. One of the local chaps who was due to show up at the same factory the following morning texted in sick before he'd even started. The same happened with the three out of four people who'd been given the chance to work at a local Indian restaurant. And the only one who did turn up threw in the towel after a couple of hours.

And then there was the asparagus farm where, quite simply, the three Brits could not hold a candle to their foreign colleagues. They were slow, unwilling and clearly not interested in the job. One in particular appeared extremely resentful when any advice or guidance was given.

Most interesting was the opinion of the local employers. The one in charge of the potato factory was adamant that the number of British applicants slumped in the late Nineties. Evan Davis double checked: are you sure that they stopped applying before the latest wave of immigration took place? Yes, was the answer.

The boss at the asparagus factory was positive: without migrant workers he'd have to shut up shop. And for all talks that foreign labour is undercutting 'homebred' workers, it was only thanks to the minimum wage that the British asparagus pickers didn't end up earning significantly less than their Eastern European counterparts.

On March 1st a similar experiment is going to be repeated but this time on a massive scale.

France, Italy and Spain are all about to witness the first concerted migrant workers' strike. "La journée sans immigrés, 24h sans nous", "Un Giorno Senza Di Noi" and "Un Dia Sin Immigrantes" will call for a mass boycott of buying, selling and working - highlight the social benefits of immigration.

From farming to food packaging, from builders, cleaners and carers to nurses, chefs and the hospitality industry, the idea is to show that, without migrant workers, a whole country can easily grind to a halt.

For too long, too many people in the whole of Western Europe held too many jobs in contempt. Somebody else filled that gap for us -often in really crap conditions- and made it possible for society to carry on and expand.

Like a bunch of spoilt little brats, we've been too quick to forget.

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