At the end of June the Lib Con government announced a "temporary cap" on the number of non-EU migrant workers to be admitted to the UK. This was a sop to racism.
Under the Tories’ proposals the number of "tier one" and "tier two" migrant workers allowed to enter the UK between July of this year and April of 2011 will be limited to 24,100. A permanent cap will be introduced next April, although the Tories have not yet named a figure.
The classification of migrant workers into "tiers" dates from the last Labour government, although the use of such a system was already widespread amongst industrialised countries before Labour latched onto the idea.
"Tier one" workers are highly skilled and highly qualified. They do not need to have a job in Britain before being granted a visa. "Tier two" workers fill vacancies which British employers have been unable to fill from the British labour force. They have to have been allocated a job before they are issued with a visa.
(There are also "tier three" less skilled workers but no-one has ever been granted a UK visa as such. "Tier four" workers are temporary workers, ranging from students doing a holiday job to artists coming to the UK for performances.)
The government's "temporary cap" is, so they say, a first step towards achieving their election campaign pledge to reduce net annual migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.
Like Labour before them, the Tories are blaming immigrants for problems such as unemployment, housing shortages, classroom overcrowding, and excessive demands on what’s left of the NHS. Reduce the number of foreigners coming into the country, runs the Tories’ argument, and these social problems can be solved.
In fact, the argument is racist and therefore also irrational. Successive studies have demonstrated that immigration has boosted economic growth. And if the period ahead sees more unemployment, more poverty that will be because of the government onslaught on public sector spending.
Even if a cut in immigration was desirable — and from a socialist perspective, which supports the right of individuals to cross national boundaries without restrictions, it isn’t — introducing a "temporary cap" on tier one and tier two workers is irrelevant to that goal.
The largest categories of immigrants into the UK are EU nationals (who are entitled to come to the UK without a visa because of the UK’s membership of the EU) and relatives of people settled here (because the right to family life is recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which the UK is a signatory).
Short of taking the UK out of the EU and annulling the UK’s signature to the ECHR, there is nothing the Tories can do about such migration.
Introducing a "cap" — whether temporary or permanent — on tier one and tier two workers – is a mere sideshow as far as cutting immigration is concerned. There were 590,000 migrants to the UK in 2008, for example. By contrast, the number of tier one workers admitted last year was around 28,000, and the number of tier two workers was around 65,000.
By their own admission, the Tories’ temporary "cap" will reduce immigration by about 2,000 between now and next April. What the announcement of a "cap" does do, however, is reinforce the perception that unemployment and bad housing are caused by immigration — and that is useful in ideological terms for a government that is causing unemployment and halting the building of social housing.
But the Tories’ announcement has provoked concern and criticism — among the ranks of capitialists — from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, Price Waterhouse Coopers, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Royal Commonwealth Society, and London First (a City pressure group). They object to the "cap" because its consequences would be bad for the economy and hinder attempts to take the UK out of recession.
According to a spokesperson for Price Waterhouse Coopers:
“Every overseas national brought by firms into the UK costs them three times as much as hiring a resident worker. They are not spending that money for nothing. They really need that expertise. Particularly in these economic times, it's very important that we allow businesses a free choice to bring in overseas nationals,"”
From their own point of view, Price Waterhouse Coopers are right. This "cap" is not just a manifestation of racist irrationality but also of economic irrationality. In introducing a "cap" the Tories have chosen to elevate racism above policies which, from a capitalist point of view, make economic sense.
Arguably even more contemptible than the Tories’ introduction of a "cap" is the support which the policy has gained from the Lib Dems. During the election the Lib Dems opposed the idea of a "cap", arguing that it would be bad for business. Another day, another u-turn.