Britain is in the middle of an acute shortage of workers in low-paid, long-houred and only short-term secure jobs. Basically, jobs without much of a future for the worker who is temporarily employed in them.
Some experts tell us this is all the fault of Brexit, while others tell us that it’s all been caused by the pandemic. Those things have surely paid their part, but in the end it really is all down to the anarchy of the capitalist system of production.
It is capitalism that is incapable of preparing for short-term changes in production or distribution. It is capitalism that forces workers’ wages and conditions down as low as possible in order to undercut competitors. It is capitalism in which low-tech industries pay no heed to training workers, assuming that there will always be someone who is desperate enough to accept the poor wages and conditions on offer.
There has been discussion around using soldiers to drive HGVs to alleviate the problems facing the industries that are screaming out for drivers, such as fuel, farming and shops, and the army certainly have drivers and instructors who could help train civilians wanting to move into driving, as well as assessors able to give licences. After all, they’re not invading anyone at the moment, so they need to keep busy, and they are already paid for.
In the long term, however, it’s not only the wages and conditions of civilian drivers that have to improve, it is the training and testing, which currently has to be paid for by the trainee but which should really be covered by either the state or the company in question.
Another long-term solution may be to look at the waterways still interlocking much of Britain, or at rebuilding our once mighty rail infrastructure so as to take a lot of freight off the congested motorways, which also make their contribution to poor distribution.
Other areas of shortage at the moment include meat processing, waiting tables, line work in factories and packing plants, labouring, care work, warehouse work and a host of others.
As a result, there is an ongoing debate about whether the government should grant short-term work visas to foreign workers. Whilst we would have no problem with this, there is another solution that is staring us in the face: asylum seekers should be allowed to work and earn while they are here waiting, sometimes for years, for the decisions on their cases.
There are some 125,000 asylum requests waiting to be processed at the moment. These refugees are here, but they can neither work nor seek work. Of course, they still need to be fed and housed, and this cost is currently borne (at an extremely bare minimum) by the state.
Imagine the difference to these poor workers’ lives if they were allowed to do paid work while awaiting judgement. They could contribute to their own care and lodgings, their self-esteem and mental health would receive a boost, they would learn the language and customs of the land to help them integrate better if they are accepted, and if rejected, at least they would have a little money to help them move on at the end of the process.
What would it mean to the rest of us? Jobs that no one wants to do would be done, reducing shortages in many sectors. The money spent housing and feeding asylum seekers could be redirected.
There have been some voices raised against this idea, particularly by those who assert that ‘If you pay them to come here it tells others to do the same.’ But if it does, is that really a problem? Capitalism cannot solve the problem of a scarcity of low-paid workers in some industries and, as most asylum seekers get turned down, at least they got something from the time spent here.
Even justice secretary Dominic Raab has said that he is open to the idea, while there are hundreds of businesses, recruiters, trade unions, economists, MPs, religious groups and refugee organisations calling on the government to lift the ban.
Britain has an aging population and the number of job vacancies is rising, primarily in jobs that most British workers don’t want. That is bound to happen as the labour shortage gives people choices and naturally they go for the better-paid job that also has better conditions.
During the height of the pandemic, while people stood on doorsteps clapping health workers as they struggled through the crisis, our government’s red tape prevented nurses, doctors, healthcare assistants and other medical experts who were sitting in our asylum system from working and aiding that struggle even a little.
The number of people waiting for their asylum applications to be processed is not big enough to fill Britain’s growing labour gaps, but lifting the ban could make a huge difference in many situations around the country and would certainly make a big difference to the lives of refugees and their families.
There is only one reason that anyone would want such people left sitting idle in conditions of near destitution, and that is to turn them into targets for those who illegally employ workers who don’t have alternatives at a tiny pittance, undercutting even the lowest of poor wages.
Capitalism cannot cure the ills and miseries of workers, only a planned economy will do that. But even within the present system, some things, like letting asylum seekers work, just make obvious sense.