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26 August 2022

“Hard working people”: how intersections of class, nationality and race in the UK are harming migrant communities

The harmful perception of a migrant as a drain on the State or a ‘scrounger’ are drenched in intersections between race and class.

It should be no surprise when a recording of Conservative leadership candidate, Liz Truss, was leaked in which she said British workers need “more graft”. Graft. Meaning hard work. But these ideas aren’t new. Class and the demonisation of the working class has been prevalent in the UK for a long time. It’s that infamous “British class system”. 

Ideas that were promoted by Margaret Thatcher and the ideology that bears her name, notably in the 1978 interview in which she stated: 

“Nowadays there really is no primary poverty left in this country. In Western countries we are left with the problems which aren’t poverty. All right, there may be poverty because people don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character—personality defect.

Statements like these justify the exploitation of those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds or areas. It ultimately places the blame of their circumstances on them, rather than on the systems and discourse that prevent social mobility. However, this has not motivated communities to turn their attention to the exploitative capitalist structures and those who actually hold social power. Instead, the revered ideals of the ‘deserving’ and ‘hard-working’ individual that contributes to Britain’s culture and economy has been weaponised and used to sow suspicion and discontent within poorer communities. This includes migrant and migratised communities. 

The harmful perception of a migrant as a drain on the State or a ‘scrounger’ are drenched in intersections between race and class. The characterisation of these communities as ‘lazy’ in comparison to the wealthy, combined with racist depictions of migrants and those from the Global South whip up resentment for migrant communities. 

It is clear that the established narrative of the working class as lazy combined with imperialist stereotypes of the ‘uncivilised’ and ‘undeserving’ colonised are being weaponised as a motivation for anti-migration discourse and policies. It exists in many forms- within the Establishment, the White British population and migratised communities. We know many migrant communities seek to describe themselves as ‘hard-working’ in order to fit into the established British narrative of who is deserving and to be ‘welcomed’. Many exceptionalise themselves and seek to portray themselves as the ‘model migrant’ whilst dismissing other groups who are struggling to survive or newly arrived individuals. For example “I work hard, but this other group from this country don’t work as hard as me.”

We fundamentally reject this idea. 

These communities are, and have to be, ‘hard-working’ . Particularly when the systems are inherently rigged against them. The actual hard work is staying out of destitution and extreme poverty for many migrants with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), who can only rely on their wages to keep them afloat. Facing institutional racism, intersecting with class, these systems reproduce inequality and disadvantages for migrant communities too.

For example, links between race and class are evident in statistics relating to precarious work. In 2021, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Race on the Agenda (ROTA) published research which found Women of Colour are almost twice as likely than White men to be on zero-hour contracts. These trap women into low pay and insecure circumstances that make them unable to plan their lives and futures. 

Moreover, discrimination based on these intersections of identity is deeply entrenched and became increasingly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, we published a report in partnership Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, Migrants at Work and the 3million which found key workers of Colour were being treated unfairly by employers as a result of race, ethnicity or nationality, and were required to take on less desirable tasks or shift patterns than White counterparts.

Is it not important to ask ourselves why these battles amongst lower socio-economic groups, including people of colour and ethnic minority White groups, such as Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller (GRT) communities, continue to persist and find new ways of manifesting themselves? How is it that we can understand the concept of oppression and social power, and yet direct our anger at those who hold little to none of it?

These are the questions we must begin to ask when we are confronted with the dangerous narrative of who is ‘hard-working’. It is through this we have a chance of challenging the status quo and pay lower socio-economic and migratised communities the respect they deserve.