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In the comic 'I'm only happy when it rains', Korola observes a man reading a tabloid newspaper featuring anti-immigrant vitriol.

A Brief History of ‘Guest Workers’

The concept of the ‘guest worker’ is synonymous with exploitation and controversy. In this essay, James Walker traces the history of this politically charged term and suggests that in our current precarious economy we are all guests to the whims of capitalism.

When interviewing migrants for this comic, one Hungarian woman kept referring to herself as a ‘guest,’ explaining that she felt she had an obligation to act and behave in a way that was befitting of her ‘invite’ to the UK. This perception of being a guest intrigued me, not least because of the political connotations of the term.

Guest workers can be traced back centuries from the Indian ‘coolies’ in the West Indies to Chinese labour in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. The formula is simple: industry needs temporary labour migrants to make profit. Stephen Castles writes that ‘such systems have often followed on from slavery, and have been seen as preferable in terms of flexibility and controllability’.

Elaborate bureaucratic systems have been implemented over the years to make it as difficult as possible for migrants to settle or feel a sense of home. Between 1870 and 1914, Germany welcomed Polish migrants to help build mines and steelworks on the Ruhr. But they had to leave Germany for a given period each year to negate long term settlement rights.

Since then, the term guest worker has become synonymous with its German translation, Gastarbeiter, designating the mainly postwar Turkish workers who helped rebuild West Germany. Many became permanent residents, though not all who helped rebuild countries flattened in the war have been made to feel welcome.

In 1945 Britain set up the European Voluntary Worker (EVW) scheme, with the aim of recruiting around 90,000 workers from refugee camps. But only single persons could apply. The Ministry of Labour removed choice by allocating workers with jobs and limited contracts to three years. Ill health or delinquency could result in instant deportation. Although the EVW scheme was abandoned in 1951, Britain retained restrictive schemes such as the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962. This contrasted with countries such as France and Belgium who eventually opted for more spontaneous and flexible schemes.

For migrants, such schemes provided an opportunity to save money and buy land or property on their return home. ‘They were becoming temporary proletarians abroad’ writes Stephen Castles ‘to avoid permanent proletarianization in their own countries.’

Glyn and Harrison (1980) define the period from 1952-68 as the most rapid and sustained development of production in history. The reasons for this are too complex to untangle here but needless to say an expendable migrant labour force with less rights than ‘home’ workers helped to stop wages from rising. You should be grateful to have a job was the adage, so shut up and put up. And then along came sophisticated machines that didn’t even need a break…

Fast forward today and machines and computers haven’t quite replaced all jobs yet. Today guest worker programmes still exist and aim to fill specific gaps in the market, such as the H-2A programme in America that allows employers to import agricultural workers and H-1B visas to ensure only skilled workers are allowed in.

In Britain, there has been a distinct change in attitude and legislation brought about by Brexit. The 2016 referendum encouraged British people to ‘Take back control’ – as if Europe had stolen something and must now sit in the naughty corner admiring the White Cliffs of Dover. A relentless campaign of fear whipped up by the tabloid press has had a cumulative effect on perceptions of ‘guest workers’ as taking our jobs, claiming our benefits, and filling our high street with products that the natives can barely pronounce, let alone spell.

Whereas historically guest workers tended to ‘do the jobs you hate’ and therefore were perfect for semi-skilled industrial, agricultural or domestic labour, the current legislation demands the opposite. Temporary workers must conform to a points-based Tier 5 legislation to gain a work permit that includes six categories of temporary workers. These are:

• creative and sporting;
• charity workers;
• religious workers;
• those entering under government authorised exchange programs;
• those entering under international agreements; and
• those entering under the youth mobility scheme

Brexit has brought a grinding halt to free movement as well as other rights. In terms of the Tier 3 visa route, workers would not have the right to change their job. This goes against Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ‘free choice of employment’. They would also lose the right to bring over family, meaning we return to the historical forms of exploitation raised at the beginning of this article.

At the time of writing, the Office of National Statistics estimates that the number of people born outside the UK who are resident here – both workers and non-workers – has fallen by about 900,000. There are lots of factors that can explain this change, not least the impact of the 2020 lockdown on the economy, but clearly, if nothing else, there is a change in attitude towards who is now perceived to be a legitimate guest in the country as well as who is able to work/visit/study here post Covid.

In our comic, Korola jumps on a plane not so much for money but for a new adventure, a new experience. Over time, legislation may very well render our factual story fiction. Indeed, we could argue that capitalism has now become so efficient that all workers – be that native or foreign – have become expendable. Zero-hour contracts function as a new form of exploitation that is gradually eroding worker rights and security, leading to a new form of oppressed worker, the precariat. From the hourly paid lecturer to the temp agency worker, we all find ourselves as ‘guests’ in this precarious economy.

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Castles, S. "The guest-worker in Western Europe—An obituary." International Migration Review 20.4 (1986): 761-778.

Glyn, A. and Harrison, J. The British Economic Disaster. (London: Pluto Press, 1980)

Portes, J and O'Connor, M. ‘Estimating the UK Population during Covid-19’ UK in a changing Europe

Office for National Statistics ONS website