Should we bet on a national self-defence of our wages and working conditions, or should we try to build our own Tower of Babel that can unite all workers of the world in one movement?

In the story of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis in the Bible, God is quoted as saying the following:

“Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

God’s dastardly plan succeeded, as we know. The Tower of Babel was never finished and humanity was divided into different nations, with different languages, and we’ve been fighting and quarrelling ever since.

That was how it used to be.

In the modern, globalised world, multinational companies operate unimpeded across borders and language barriers, with international business English as the great unifying language. In 2004-2009 multinational construction companies from virtually all continents, with more than 10,000 migrant workers from more than 100 countries, constructed the half a mile high skyscraper Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Burj Khalifa could be seen as a modern Tower of Babel, a sign that humanity has finally conquered that ancient history, and has been united in brotherly love by capitalist globalisation. But it’s not quite like that.

In the midst of the construction of Burj Khalifa on March 21 2006, about 2,500 migrant workers rampaged through the construction site, knocked over security staff, set fire to cars and vandalised the building management offices. The eruption of anger came on top of prolonged dissatisfaction with wages and work conditions on the enormous prestige project. According to the Guardian, skilled workers earned €5.5 a day. By comparison, a one bedroom apartment was sold for €220,000.

If you are on the international winning team, globalisation gives you the entire planet’s many opportunities. You can work in New York, run a business in China, go to the beach in Dubai and have your home address in the safety of Denmark. If you are not part of the winning team, then globalisation has made your life uncertain, possibly forced you to travel far from your family to find work, or to compete with workers from all over the globe for the jobs in your home town. Understandably, the reaction to capitalist globalisation, from those of us on the losers’ team, is not always brotherly love, but rather anger and hate.

I have worked in a sort of modern Tower of Babel, although construction barely came above ground level. I worked in the construction of the new Metro in my home town of Copenhagen, a workplace which is also characterised by firms and workers from many different countries. We also had problems with wages and working conditions, especially for the migrant workers. The Portuguese concrete workers for example: they ware only paid €9.5 per hour, and worked at least 50 hours a week without overtime pay. The Danish concrete workers are normally paid around €25 an hour, and have a 37 hour work week. We Danes felt pressured by the migrant workers’ low wages, and ended op blockading them, as described in the book Battle Sites. Not just the Portuguese on the Metro, but also by the tens of thousands Eastern European migrant workers who have come to Denmark since the EU expansion ten years ago.

This system sets workers up as competitors, who compete for jobs. Trade unions have historically tried to stem this competition by fixing minimum wages in collective agreements. In Norway, they call it the promise. Workers promise each other that they will not work for a wage below the minimum wage, and that they will support each other in case of strikes. This is a good old principle which for a 100 years helped to ensure Danish construction workers’ relatively good wages and working conditions. The problem is that migrant construction workers are most often not members of the Danish trade unions, and they have not promised their Danish colleagues anything. On the contrary, they will take the jobs at much lower pay than their Danish colleagues. It is what we call social dumping.

The Danish bricklayer and union activist and author Mattias Tesfaye wrote in 2008 on his blog about his frustrations with not being able to organise migrant workers into the Danish trade unions.

“The past several places I’ve worked, there has also been unorganised Eastern Europeans. I always try to talk to them. I always give 3F pamphlets to them in their own language. I am always willing to assist with any problems they have with the Danish authorities, employers, building materials and so on. I am, in short, much more helpful to them than I ever would be facing an unorganised Dane. I have talked to very many. And I have managed to organise exactly zero foreigners! Yep! You read that right, a big round 0.”

Six months later, in 2009, he had had enough, and suggested that the Danish labour movement should change its policy on migrant workers. From “they are welcome, but on collective agreements” to “work in Denmark must primarily be performed by people who already live in Denmark.” And he was not alone in having had enough – he had been inspired by events in the UK.

In 2009 there was a series of wildcat strikes in the British construction sector. More than 20 of the country’s largest construction sites were hit by strikes. Workers were protesting the exclusion of local people from jobs, and the use of posted migrant labour on British construction sites. In a transparent attempt to undermine local unions and terms and conditions, companies winning construction tenders brought workers with them from Italy and Portugal. British workers responded with placards quoting the words of Gordon Brown: “British jobs for British workers”. Bobby Buirds, a regional officer for Unite in Scotland, was interviewed on the strikes in the Guardian, and said: “This is a fight for work. It is a fight for the right to work in our own country.”

At about the same time, the Polish trade union OPPZ made a similar request to the Polish government. They asked for restrictions on migration from poorer countries to Poland. The economic crisis had come to Western Europe, and Polish immigrants were beginning to return home – only to discover that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Chinese had taken over their jobs, at wages that they could not compete with. OPPZ president January Guz explained to internet paper METRO in March 2009, that employers often employ migrant workers because “they will work for peanuts”.

The Danish bricklayer Mattias Tesfaye, the British construction workers and OPPZ were challenging one of the building blocks of the EU, and of globalisation: the free movement of labour, from country to country. But they did not get support from the left wing parties, presumably because of the fear of the underlying racist message.

Bobby Buirds of Unite was quick to emphasise that the strikes were not racist, saying: “The argument is not against foreign workers, it’s against foreign companies discriminating against British labour”. In Denmark, Mattias Tesfaye also argued that it is not racist to ask employers to hire local labour first, and said that if the Left did not address the real problems with labour migration, right wing nationalists would take over the debate, and win the support of the working class. In the UK the British National Party did indeed support the strikes, and in Denmark the sister party to UKIP, The Danish Folk Party(DF), was also fast to protest the use of cheap foreign labour in Danish workplaces. Finally, the European nationalist parties had a landslide election to the EU parliament last year, a victory won with great help from the increasing frustrations with the free movement of labour in the EU. In Denmark DF won 26,7 % of the working class vote. It would seem that Mattias Tesfaye was right in his worrying analysis of the Left’s stance on immigration of labour. Most of the Danish Left has indeed taken notice of this, and have changed their policies into something I would call a “national self-defence for the Danish worker”.

I must admit that I think it makes sense to hire local workers before importing workers from outside. But I am unsure whether a “Buy Local” strategy will be particularly effective in the long run. Migrant workers will probably continue to arrive, no matter what laws and border fences we try to erect. The experience of illegal migrants from North Africa to southern Europe and from Latin America to the United States shows that barbed wire will not keep the hungry out. It is simply a question of supply and demand in the free market system we find ourselves in.

There will also continue to be an international competition, a race to the bottom, to attract industry. The multinationals will continue to move their factories to the cheapest labour offer. A border fence does not remedy that situation.

Another strategy might be to become as global as the multinationals. Instead of beating foreigners in the competition for the jobs, we could organise ourselves with them, both at home and internationally. However, this is easier said than done. My own humble experience in organising migrant workers on the Metro where not encouraging. Our employers spoke English, but most of the migrant workers spoke only their native language. How can we promise each other something when we do not speak the same language?

Nonetheless, these are the choices the labour movement faces. Should we bet on a national self-defence of our wages and working conditions, or should we try to build our own Tower of Babel that can unite all workers of the world in one movement?

The latter is of course the most difficult, but perhaps also the most beautiful.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Jakob Mathiassen

Jakob Mathiassen is a construction worker from Copenhagen, Denmark, and co-author of the book Battle Sites.

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