Poor arguments against low-paid work

Ken Loach's new film captures the misery created by immigration controls. But he's wrong to blame only 'the right wing' for migrants' woes.

Andrew Cox

Topics Culture

Left-wing director Ken Loach has turned to the subject of immigrant labour for his latest film, It’s a Free World…, currently on limited preview release in cinemas before being screened on Channel 4 next Monday. Written by Loach’s long-time collaborator, former human rights lawyer Paul Laverty, the film focuses attention on the injustices of current immigration policy and the problem of low pay.

The story is driven by the forceful character of Angie (Kierston Wareing), a charismatic and lively young woman working with a recruitment agency hiring East European workers on the cheap. She is sacked by the agency after standing up to the unwanted attention of some rather leery male colleagues during a recruitment trip to Poland. Angie decides to try and beat them at their own game by setting up her own agency with her flatmate Rose (Juliet Ellis). Life is not straightforward for Angie because she has to juggle the complications of setting up a new business with the hassles of being a single parent.

Angie and Rosie, in their different ways, have had unsatisfactory working lives. Angie is 33 years old and has had over 30 jobs, while her flatmate Rose, who is a graduate, has a dreary job in a call centre. Work for both of them is insecure and temporary, and sustains only a basic lifestyle in pricey London. While exasperated by the insecurity of her own ‘flexible’ working life, Angie is also repelled by the drudgery of her parents’ generation, who have been doing the same mind-numbing work for decades.

At first, Rose thinks Angie’s idea about setting up a recruitment agency is a little far-fetched, but through gut instinct and sheer determination Angie persuades Rose that it is workable – even though initially their business is illegal as they don’t have a licence and proper tax records. The backyard of Angie’s local pub becomes the early morning recruiting ground for Eastern Europeans desperate to get a day’s work in factories or on building sites. During the day Angie, sexily clad in leather and astride a motorbike (which becomes the agency’s logo), goes out to pubs and cafés offering work to migrants from places as far apart as Poland and Chile.

The crux of the film lies in Angie’s decision to get involved with illegal immigrant labour. On the one hand, she takes pity on an Iranian man and his family who are living in squalor. On the other, she becomes involved with a cynical clothing factory boss who encourages her to hire illegal workers from Ukraine. Different issues are raised through Angie’s relationships with others. For the clothing factory boss, Eastern Europeans are cheap and work hard because they are desperate, reflecting the economic advantages of immigration for business. Angie’s father is disgusted by her exploitation of the agency workers; he doesn’t want his son competing for low-paid work in the future, illustrating the insecurity felt by British workers.

To their credit, Loach and Laverty are trying to open up a debate on the problem of low-paid and often temporary work, which is becoming endemic to the UK economy. Angie is someone who wants to be successful and overcome the limitations of being a single mother and make something of herself – something that she can’t find in the long string of temporary jobs that make up her employment career. Yet circumstances mean she must attempt to achieve these goals through questionable methods. Her agency employees end up becoming objects for her to exploit to her own financial advantage, and she even ends up betraying the Iranian family.

In interviews about the film, Loach discusses the issue of immigration through the lens of the traditional postwar right-left divide of British politics: ‘Immigrants are welcomed in because they’re cheap, and ordered out because they’re foreign. That’s the hypocrisy of the right wing. The right wing in the shape of the employer who wants cheap labour. The right wing in the form of the kind of small-minded chauvinist and xenophobe who only wants to see people of his own colour and his own background in his country. So it’s the hypocrisy of the right. The left has got a different agenda all together.’ When one of his interviewers responded that there is ‘certainly no serious anti-business left in America’, Loach said: ‘Then it’s not left, is it? It’s another aspect of the right.’ (1)

The issue is simply not that clear-cut; there are anti-immigrant arguments coming from both left and right. Loach sees anti-immigration as an abhorrence of the political right, yet it is the former Labour left-wingers now in government who are busy rushing through legislation restricting the rights of immigrants. For example, prime minister Gordon Brown has recently announced that all foreign workers entering the UK must take some form of English language qualification (2). In the interview, Loach linked low food prices at the supermarkets to the exploitation of immigrant labour in the food industries. His implication is that if migrants were paid the minimum wage then food prices would increase drastically. Whether or not this is true, we’ve heard similarly crude economic arguments from reactionaries on the other side of the fence suggesting that cheap immigrant labour is impoverishing British workers by keeping the minimum wage down – and even that immigration is leading to higher house prices (3).

Loach is right to suggest that people should be free to move from country to country in order to better their lives; but in order to make that happen, the contemporary arguments against immigration need to be challenged. While Loach obsesses about right wingers, the newest and most fashionable arguments on immigration are coming from those generally thought to be on the left of the political spectrum. The obsession with people trafficking, highlighted by the ‘sex industry’ and by the deaths of Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004, adds a liberal and feminist panic to the list of reasons to object to immigration. The increasing concern with over-population, suggesting that the country can’t cope with the environmental impact of so many people, provides a green justification for immigration controls. In fact, the left and the wider labour movement has a long track record of promoting anti-immigrant ideas and policies.

It’s a Free World… portrays Angie as an ordinary person who gets swallowed up in the vicious cycle of exploitative casual labour with ugly and unpredictable consequences both for illegal workers and those, like Angie, who seek to exploit them. In the end, things turn nasty for Angie. But it would be a mistake to view her downfall as her comeuppance and, to Loach’s credit, he doesn’t allow us to judge her with such liberal, moral complacency. Overall, this is a good film, which raises significant questions about low-pay. But Loach fails to see that it is the people in power, namely New Labour – with the support of the Trades Union Congress – that drove through the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 (4), which has been a boon to all employers who want their staff to put up or shut up and accept the miserable status quo.

It’s a Free World…, directed by Ken Loach, will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Monday 24 September at 9pm.

Read on:

spiked issues: Film and Immigration

(1) TIFF Interview: It’s a Free World Director Ken Loach, Cinematical, 13 September 2007

(2) More language tests for immigrants, Manchester Evening News, 9 September 2007 ; Reid targets illegal immigrants, BBC News Online, 7 March 2007

(3) Unruly Rivers: The floods that really matter are composed of migrant labour, Rod Liddle, Spectator, 28 July 2007

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