Immigration and the flexibility of labour

There are few issues in politics that are as deeply dividing as immigration. Everyone holds an opinion on the topic, how much is appropriate, of what sort, from which country, etc. Immigration is blamed for many problems in society from crime to traffic congestion but has also advanced British art and engineering. A case in point, the Mini, that British icon of style, was created by Alec Issigonis, who was born in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey). Perceived failures of immigration policy can have dire consequences for a government; case in point is the hammering Gordon Brown received in the 2010 after a perceived rises in immigration. Anti-immigration outbursts can be equally as ruinous to a career, for example Maurice Glasman suffered a fall from grace after endorsing a halt on immigration.

As well as the economic implications, it is generally viewed that the problem with immigration is the divisions in society it causes can culminate in either acts of terrorism or violence directed at immigrants themselves. Many also argue that the economic impact of immigration is at the root of the social divisions it causes. In this article I hope to show that the social disorder caused by immigration is a response to market inefficiencies and not a problem with immigration itself. In essence it is weaknesses in our economy which make both immigrants and the indigenous population poor and angry.

The market based economy does not allocate resources to where they create the most social good. Some areas of society have an excess of economic resources and some have a great lack. This is partly because not all resources are perfectly mobile to where they are needed or to where they can create the greatest good. A clear example of this is housing which cannot be moved to take advantage of where there is a shortage. Without state intervention there is no way to correct the uneven distribution of quality housing. These market inefficiencies and misallocation of resources will always mean that some lack essential goods and desirable luxuries. Those who lack resent other social groups who have been allocated extra. This has driven many of the poor all over the world towards Socialism and other left wing movements. However this resentment is not always directed at the cause of poverty (flaws in the market based system) but at those who it is perceived possess more and have not worked hard to earn it.

Amongst the poor white population this resentment can be directed towards immigrants when individuals feel that they have been allocated a larger slice of society’s scarce resources simply because they belong to a different social group. The same can be said amongst immigrants who can become resentful of an indigenous population who they feel find it easier to acquire essential goods and luxury items simply due to being born in a country. On both sides of the divide people with a specific agenda can harness the anger at society’s uneven distribution of resources to push the disaffected towards either terrorism or hate crimes.

This fact applies to both sides. The EDL and Muslims Against the Crusade are images of each other. Young, poor and angry. Politicians and community leaders are unwilling to tackle this issue partly due to the difficulties with effecting real change but also because they risk losing the support those who the current distribution of resources benefits. Following being let down by community leaders and politicians, the disenfranchised taking matters into their own hands. These tensions which occasionally spill over to acts of violence are caused by an uneven distribution of resources and a lack of political engagement with this issue which create poverty and fosters feelings of alienation.

If the government were to intervene in the free market to correct the uneven distribution of society’s scare resources, then there would be less poverty and less anger to exploit.
Those who speak out against immigration often cite the effect it has on the wages of indigenous people, especially those in the lowest paid manual and unskilled jobs. However this effect can also be explained by inefficiencies in the labour market. The immigration can lead to an oversupply of labour especially in these low paid industries. A rise in supply of labour reduces the unit cost of labour (in this case wages) as the jobless are forced to look for a wage lower than their desired wage to remain competitive in the more crowded labour market. When firms see that the labour supply is increasing they desire to reduce unit costs of production and thus lower the wage they are offering to new employees. They can expect to find applicants for the role as an increase in labour supply has caused a job shortage.

Wages fall as a result of immigration not because of the actions of immigrants but because in an unregulated labour market increased supply will reduce wages mainly because firms seek to reduce costs of production. Like housing labour is not perfectly mobile. People are tied to a certain area by family commitments or the cost of moving which prevents labour from being reallocated from areas of surplus to areas of shortage. Similar labour markets where there is a short of supply often have barriers prevent entry to these markets by immigrants and the poor - barriers such as expensive qualifications or many years of experience.

This effect on wages can also be corrected by government intervention in the labour market. Access to education can break down the entry barriers to certain labour markets, especially training for the long term unemployed. Also the introduction of a living wage would ensure that even when there is excess supply firms are not able to drive down the wage price to point where it puts people into poverty.

Society’s scares resources are allocated in large quantities to a small section of the population. This does not just apply to wealth and material goods but also access to important services like education and health care. This divide is growing wider and those who which society has allocated less resources are growing poorer and angrier. This anger is often directed at the wrong parties where it is the system by which resources are allocated at this at fault.

The government needs to do more to address labour market inefficiencies to tackle the social problems caused by immigration. One possibility is to consider a return to the objective of full employment and guarantee a living wage. Both of which will involve government legislating the labour market but will result in higher wages for immigrants and the indigenous alike.

Until these inefficiencies are tackled, immigration will still be an issue dividing both society and political debates. This divide will always be to the loss of the poorest members of society both immigrants and indigenous alike.