Andy Shallice reports on the impact of new meaures to restrict the rights of EU migrants, particularly the Roma.
‘In this world, shipmates, Sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers…’(Herman Melville, 1851 via Matthew Carr, 2012)
Since April, no new housing benefit claims by recent (and some longer settled) unemployed EU migrants have been accepted. Rents go unpaid – or food and heating sacrificed to pay the rent. Meanwhile, as the Financial Times reported last summer, 73 percent of new homes in central London were bought by overseas buyers – many as investments, not homes. At a time when insufficient houses are being built, this wealth fans the flames of the speculative bubble, with obvious and dire implications for many poor and working class communities in London. But landlords operating in the private rented sector aren’t going to go hungry. Department of Work and Pensions statistics forecast additional housing benefit payments to private sector landlords for the four years to 2018 as around £4,000m (that’s four billion pounds) – getting on for 100 times greater than the projected savings on EU migrant workers’ housing costs.
So maybe we could expect a government that was dealing with the apparent electoral success of xenophobic parties to start addressing the factors that are driving up house prices and making life unaffordable, particularly in London. Building more houses for the working class and the poor? Strengthening tenants’ rights? Limiting the rights of the overseas mega-wealthy to purchase new housing? Or at least thinking of moving government spending from housing benefits to house building? No. It has instead followed the castigation of Herman Melville’s ‘virtuous paupers’ by constructing a system which threatens the newly arrived poor with homelessness and destitution. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) proudly claimed that the denial of housing benefit to ‘job seeking’ (in other words, unemployed) EU migrants from 1 April will save £50m over the next five years.
EU citizens are denied the right to seek sanctuary from persecution in another EU country. But as EU citizens, they can travel and move to seek work in any other EU country. Unless they are poor, it seems.
Why Roma come
Along with the neo-liberal reforms which central and eastern European nation states aggressively imposed after 1989, the new ‘social freedoms’ also challenged old Stalinist policies of assimilation of minorities. Racism was allowed and in some cases encouraged to become rampant – and violent. A few Roma families successfully claimed refugee status in western and northern Europe in the 1990s, before their countries joined the EU. (Many more were prevented from travelling – for example, UK immigration officers based at Prague airport screened passengers and stopped Roma from boarding.) Others regularised their presence after 2004, when Czechs, Poles and other central and eastern European nationals became entitled to free movement with their countries’ accession into the EU. In the last ten years, Roma families have been part of a larger migration from the east and south of the EU to the north. But whereas many migrants from Spain, Greece or Romania come as single women and men, with vocational and educational experience, and skills that capital wants, Roma migrants are different. And their reasons for migration may be more complex; it may have less to do with austerity and the Troika, and more to do with citizens’ militias and forcible evictions. Amnesty International described some of this in a report released on this year’s Roma National day.
Pauperised and scapegoated
Last autumn saw the scene-setting for the ‘Romanian invasion’. The yellow press helpfully spread a vision of Romanian = Roma, and did everything possible to conflate the particular local pressures and tensions (eg, in Page Hall in Sheffield, or Govanhill in Glasgow), with the general opposition to freedom of movement for Bulgarian and Romanian workers. The Coalition rose to the occasion. Supported by Clegg, Cameron announced a range of new measures which attack some of the central principles of welfare provision in this country. Since Cameron’s announcement last November marking his government’s decision to target migrants, there have been eight changes which directly attack EU migrant workers’ rights. The most significant are:
- No right to Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) for three months, and an overall limit of six months on JSA, for any EU ‘job seeker’, after which, nothing;
- No payment of housing benefit to any new ‘job seeker’ claimant;
- Defining low-paid EU migrant workers not as workers but as ‘job seekers’.
The six-month limit on JSA and the ending of the automatic link with eligibility for housing benefit are not only harsh, but should be understood as a potential precedent for an attack on welfare for all.
One clear consequence of these changes is that Jobcentre and local council staff will be forced to penalise and impoverish migrant workers who are unable to find what is called ‘genuine and effective work’– officially defined as work that pays at least £153 per week over three months. There is growing evidence of Roma men and women already experiencing the maelstrom of appalling conditions, long hours, tyrannical management and sub-minimum-wage pay. As the few remaining support structures of the system of welfare state are dismantled, how long will it before a permanent under-underclass is institutionalised, occupied by Roma and other poor EU and non-EU migrants?
The consequences of the ending of payment of housing benefits are even more obvious. Roma families and communities are not unused to suffering; they will yet again adjust to cope without support for rent. They will move and squat, or stay with their wider family and friends. Overcrowding – especially in private rented housing – will increase. And with it, the wider neighbourhood problems associated with overcrowding – particularly the use of the (public) street for family amusement and recreation. Already, you can hear the echoes of nativist reaction on the left to the drumbeat of UKIP on the right; and the Roma – desperate for any income and any shelter – will be the anvil for the arguments.
Staff at the East European Advice centre described these changes as:
‘shocking and worrying. We envisage one major consequence for our Roma users: they will be destitute. We also fear that some users may become victims of dodgy and unsavoury practices in terms of work – some may be exploited or otherwise harmed.’
Sue Lukes, an experienced housing activist said:
‘The lower earnings limit [to be defined as a ‘worker’] is particularly pernicious because as we all know, lower earnings are a function of discrimination in relation to gender, age and disability…’
The Roma Support Group said:
‘This is a clear case of the government deciding to further attack those whose lives are already precarious. Many Roma families we work with have been here for years, and worked hard, sometimes only to find that when work finishes, or they become ill, they need benefits. Denying access to housing costs when rents are spiralling and denying unemployed people benefits is going to lead to misery for some Roma families. And for newly arrived Roma families – it seems that children will suffer, families could be living in overcrowded housing and adults are likely to work in dangerous and unregulated employment. Is this what the government wants to see?’
So how are migrants penalised for being poor in the UK? Contrary to Daily Mail scaremongering, since 1April new migrants face real challenges with the UK system of social support. What do these look like?
- You are denied any benefits for the first three months. From July, this will include child benefits and child tax credits, despite all school-age children being required to attend school.
- You must satisfy the requirements of the habitual residence test, already criticised by the European Commission for undermining free movement of labour and now even more stringent.
- If you are entitled to ‘job seeker status’, you must meet the endless requirements of the Job Centre Plus advisers (under pain of sanctions). You can now claim Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA); but no support for rent or housing costs as a new claimant, unless you start working … (and so cease to be a job seeker).
- If you lose your job, and it was deemed ‘marginal and ancillary’, you will still be described as a ‘job seeker’ with no housing benefit entitlement.
- Only if you been employed for longer than three months, earning at least £150/week and are deemed – by our friends at DWP or at the council – as having ‘undertaken genuine and effective employment’, can you be defined as a ‘worker’.
- Even as a ‘worker’, if you are made redundant, you will only qualify for support via JSA and HB for six months. Then, nothing …
The English trap
‘From now on, if claimants don’t speak English, they will have to attend language courses until they do … But if you’re not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut.’(George Osborne, House of Commons, 26 June 2013)
To ensure that the official second-class status of migrant workers is understood, the DWP and Ian Duncan Smith have announced a further attack. Job Centre advisers will screen all JSA claimants with weak English and require them to undertake training. After six months, if there is insufficient improvement according to the Job Centre advisers, ‘sanctions will be applied…’
Remember that this government launched an attack on the provision of ESOL training, particularly those programmes run by local and voluntary groups? That government funding for ESOL has been continuously cut since 2011? That most ESOL learners are women? Nearly everyone who wants to live here also wants to learn English; but for some learners, particularly those who have been denied equality of treatment in education, learning English takes time – for ‘pre-pre-entry’ level students, sometimes well over a year to develop fluency.
And unless you’re Welsh, deaf or speech impaired, there will no longer be interpreters at Job Centres; of course, this was never a routine service, but was sometimes available. The DWP has deliberately and mischievously identified in its press release those mostly affected – speakers of Slovak, Polish and Czech[vii] – the countries with the largest proportion of Roma migrants.
Miliband’s mea culpa to the people of Thurrock at the end of May is now understood to be the leadership’s position on immigration and immigrants. His excusing people for voting UKIP because they felt ‘left behind and ignored’ will not come as a shock for those who opposed Blair and Brown’s prioritisation of capital and the market. But Miliband, unlike Blair and Brown, sees free movement for EU economic migrants as part of the process of neo-liberal economic transformation embraced by Blair and Brown, which left the indigenous working class behind. In this way, Miliband understands and hears the plight of his traditional Labour voters – racist and non-racist alike.
But it is also clear that in Labour’s policy world, there are those who insist on ‘muscularity’. Frank (‘balanced migration’) Field and six other Labour MPs have called for tighter controls against poor EU migrants, warning Miliband ‘to commit the next Labour government … to constraining the free movement of labour from European countries with much lower incomes …’ John Denham (ex-War on Want, Oxfam, Christian Aid, and ex-Labour front bench) was more direct. ‘Many of the EU migrants who are entitled to come here are people we would reject if they came from anywhere else’, he claims in Labour List; and ‘for the foreseeable future, it would be better if fewer EU migrants came here’. Pretty unambiguous. Not much nuance here. The attempt to ‘understand’ the UKIP voter becomes directly anti-immigrant; they (immigrants) are little different to any other bacillus, a carrier of social disease (‘people to reject’). The housing crisis, Labour’s cost of living crisis, no school places, presumably hungry dogs – are all the responsibility of the EU migrant. At one fell swoop, the EU migrant has moved to the head of the queue for castigation – replacing the inner city, the asylum seeker and on a par with the Muslim.
As Amrit Wilson commented recently on the UKIP vote, in a piece entitled ‘Racism has become respectable’:
‘In every country (Greece, Spain and Portugal) where a strong or united left party has rejected the neoliberal project of reforms and austerity, they have won. This is the real message of the European elections, which the media refuses to acknowledge.’
No Labour MP, no union, no left organisation has yet spoken out against the range of measures now directed at EU migrants, let alone started to help build an opposition. Over the next nine months, there is every indication that the established political classes (led by UKIP) will all be singing the same hymn of hate. The time has come for those who are outside the bubble to build an opposition on the ground, to contest what is happening in job centres and housing benefit interview rooms, and publicise the consequences of drawing the line against those sisters and brothers whose crime is to seek work and a safer and better life than in their countries of origin.