Christina Patterson: The truth about immigration that will never go away


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The Independent Online

On Monday, in a local shop, I cried. I cried because I was saying goodbye to a sweet, kind man whose smile has brightened almost every morning of my life for two years.

He has, for those two years, apart from the very odd day off, worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He has been paid (which is why I'd better not say what kind of shop it was) well below the minimum wage. In that time, he hasn't seen his five-year-old, or his three-year-old, or his wife.

None of this dimmed a smile that was like the sun coming out, a smile that always made me feel that now my day would be better. It was the smile of someone who was happy to have found work, because it looked at first as though he wouldn't, and of someone happy to have been allowed to work those hours, even though they're illegal, and happy to have been paid below the minimum wage, even though that's illegal, because those hours, on below the minimum wage, now mean he can set up a business when he gets back to Gujurat, which is home. It was the smile of someone who adored the children whose photos he showed me, and knew he was giving them a better future.

On Wednesday, in a café in Soho, I almost cried again. I almost cried because I was with an African friend who has just moved to England, who was telling me about his job. He's living in a bedsit, and working as a dustman, and planning to work in an old people's home at evenings and weekends. He told me about the work, and how you had to be careful when you were emptying bins on busy roads, and about the old people who couldn't manage their bins, and about how, when it wasn't his shift, he told his colleagues about the old people who would need help. I almost cried because he was so happy to have this job, and took so much care with it, and was so pleased to be here.

My local shop assistant trained as an accountant. My friend who's now a dustman has a degree in French. Both are among the 34 per cent of migrants in this country who have a post-school qualification, which is nearly 5 per cent more than what Nick Griffin calls "indigenous" Brits. Those educated migrants, according to new research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, are better paid than migrants in most other countries. They're even (though perhaps not my friends) better paid than most workers born here. This means, according to the authors of the report, they put less strain on the benefit system than their non-immigrant peers.

But this doesn't mean that Baroness Flather, Britain's first woman Asian peer, was wrong when she said on Wednesday that "the minority communities in this country, particularly the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis, have a very large number of children and the attraction is the large number of benefits that follow the child". She was told by "community leaders" that her comments were "irresponsible", and that she was "out of touch". But it would be strange if Bangladeshis and Pakistanis were the only ethnic groups to ignore the financial incentives of tax credits and benefits. Birth rates are higher among families on benefits than in work. It's possible this has nothing to do with the benefits, but it's likely that it does. If you live in a country legally, and the law of that country says it will pay you to have children, and pay more the more children you have, and pay the rent on your home, which your own country wouldn't dream of doing, it's quite hard to see why you wouldn't.

Immigrants don't come here for the weather. They don't come here for the food, or fashion. They come here because they get more money, either by selling their skilled labour, or by working long hours in low-paid jobs, or by living on benefits, than they think they would get if they didn't. And because they think that a hard life here is less hard than a hard life at home.

It's easy for middle-class people whose work isn't threatened by cut-price labour, and who swear by their (cut-price) Polish cleaners and builders, to tell the non-working working classes that they should take a leaf out of their immigrant neighbours'(often rather well-thumbed) books. Most people, or at least most non-immigrants, don't want to live in bedsits or dormitories, which is what you often have to do to survive in low-wage labour, and most people don't want to have to juggle several jobs. It's also easy for middle-class people who work hard to tell other people to work hard, but long hours in an office, or sitting round the Cabinet table, are not the same as long hours wiping people's bottoms or emptying people's bins.

Some people will keep arguing that immigration is a good thing, and some people will keep arguing that it isn't, but it is, in the end, a bit like arguing about whether you like sunshine or rain. Good or bad, boost or drain, sunshine or rain, it doesn't really matter. In a globalised world, immigration is here to stay.

What we can all agree, as we face an economic future that isn't looking all that rosy, and which seems to threaten lower standards of living for everyone except the very rich, is that it's sometimes good, when you're feeling a bit hard done by, to have people around to remind you – sometimes with a smile so bright that you cry at the thought of missing it – of your still considerable, utterly undeserved, and entirely arbitrary, luck.

Yet another role model from Scandinavia

Name a social problem and the answer, after extensive global studies, nearly always seems to be in Scandinavia. Economy in the doldrums? Look to Sweden. Not enough women in boardrooms? Look to Norway. Everyone getting a bit miserable? Look to Denmark. Not quite enough bestselling novels and TV series about serial killers? Look to all three.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Denmark has just managed to get that thing rarer than an ugly woman on TV, a female prime minister. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who was elected on Thursday, is married to Neil Kinnock's son, which does slightly give the impression that centre-left elites are as cosy as their Tory equivalents. But she has, against what appears to be a global trend, managed to get elected with promises of fewer curbs on immigration, and higher taxes. It's not clear how she's done this, but policy wonks will, no doubt, be rushing to find out. Particularly, when they see what she looks like.

What women want (according to the Tories)

It's almost touching that the Tories have suddenly decided they've got a problem with women. Not in pulling them, obviously, but in getting them to vote for them. It has suddenly hit them that big cuts in the public sector hit women more than men, and that women, unlike some politicians, don't really like being hit.

The answer, according to a leaked memo, is things like a ban on advertising to children, and criminalising forced marriage. Call me frustrated if you like, but I can't see how the youth of the nation, and plans to end medieval practices that ought to be illegal already, can be put in a box marked "carrots for women". Or perhaps not carrots, but cupcakes.