December 19, 2005

Ireland should learn from US immigration

Posted in Celtic Tiger · 15 comments ·
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In the 1950s and 1960s, black Americans moved into the middle classes at a rate not experienced before or since. When seen though the lens of 1967, it would have been logical to foresee the American black future as a middle-class one, as represented by The Cosby Show, Toni Morrison and Condoleezza Rice. Yet it did not turn out like that.

At some time in the 1980s, the mass upward social mobility of blacks stopped.

Why was this? Why did the self-confident black civil rights movement, characterised by intelligent, peaceful protest and justified moral superiority, spawn the nihilism, boorishness and misogyny of 50 Cent?

One of the many reasons advanced to explain this development has been immigration. There appears to be a direct correlation between immigration and black social advancement. When US immigration is low, black people do well economically; the converse is true when immigration is high.

Black Americans did very well in the 1950s and early 1960s when immigrants accounted for just 8 per cent of the increase in the US labour force – an historically low figure. Contrast this with immigrants accounting for 55 per cent of the growth in the labour force in the first decade of the century and more than 27 per cent in the 1990s.

By the 1980s and 1990s, competition for blue-collar jobs had increased dramatically as new immigrants flooded into the US again. Two things happened: blacks disproportionately lost out to the new immigrants, and blue-collar wages fell, while professional incomes rose.

While there is little argument that immigration has been beneficial for the US economy and society as a whole, it is clear that the middle class has done better than the working class. Is there anything we can learn in Ireland from this experience?

Will the same happen here?

The history of immigration is the history of social fluidity. In a fascinating book entitled How the Irish Became White, author Noel Ignatiev traces the evolution of the Irish in America and how we eventually changed colour in the eyes of the Anglo Saxon establishment.

Initially, the Irish were seen as untermensch by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) establishment, but that changed in the late 19th century. Going back to the famine, Ignatiev explains how waves of immigrants from Ireland displaced the American black labourers with alarming speed, by undercutting them in a classic example of 19th century outsourcing.

As is the case today, outsourcing created much discussion in the editorial pages. Here is an extract from a letter in the Philadelphia Daily Sun newspaper in 1849:

�There is direct competition between the blacks and the Irish as we all know.

�The wharfs and new building attest to this fact; when a few years ago we saw none but blacks, we now see nothing but Irish.�

Not only did the Irish replace the blacks but, having replaced them, we set up a powerful trade union movement based on race to make sure that we kept them out. Economic history is replete with other examples of the dislocating nature of immigration.

This brings us to the issue of Irish Ferries. The overriding lesson from this tawdry tale is that immigration will hurt some of us and enrich others. Junior Cert economics tells us immigration will ultimately drive down the wages of Irish workers in areas where they have to compete with Polish, Lithuanian or Slovakian immigrants.

This process will benefit professional Irish people who will profit greatly from the fall in the costs of services provided by tradesmen, seamen, cleaners, security men and home helps, to mention but a few occupations.

A topical area that highlights this process is childcare. In recent years, we have seen an explosion in the number of foreign nannies and au pairs. Had they not come here, childcare would be even more expensive and many thousands of educated Irish women would find it impossible – or, more pointedly, uneconomic � to go out to work. But both problems were solved by immigrants.

An article in US magazine The Atlantic, by Caitlin Flanagan, stated that �for many young mothers, the precise intersection of their two most passionate influences – their profound, almost physical love for their children and their fervent wish to make something of themselves beyond the hall door – is the exact spot where the foreign worker turns up for work each day’�.

So who benefits? Obviously, the professional Irishwoman and the immigrant woman. But what about the Irishwoman who used to look after other people’s children? Her wage has been compressed downwards to a level where it would not have been had there been no immigrants.

For many, this might be positive, if they can get better-paid jobs, which is possible while the boom continues.

So as long as there are jobs aplenty, the disproportionate impact of immigration on working-class Irish people will be masked. However, if that were to change – as the ESRI hinted in its latest report – what might happen?

An indicator of what could happen politically in Ireland can be seen in the French EU referendum earlier this year.

The unsung hero of the French �Non’ campaign was the demonised �Polish plumber’.

The invasion of Polish plumbers was seen as emblematic of the problem with the EU. If it weren’t for enlargement, there wouldn’t be half as many Polish plumbers who were coming to France, competing with French tradesmen and driving down the wages of blue-collar workers across the country.

But apart from the Polish worker, his family in Katowice and second-hand car salesmen in suburban Lyon, who benefits from this? Well, the white-collar, bureaucratic elite of Paris and other metropolitan centres who buy the now-cheaper services of plumbers.

This divergence in who gains from immigration and who is threatened caused blue-collar France to vote overwhelmingly against the EU constitution. In contrast, white-collar France voted for it.

So could this happen here? Until now, Irish trade unions have been on the side of the immigrants and championed foreign workers in the few areas where blatant exploitation has been uncovered. The booming capitalist economy has, ironically, allowed international workers’ solidarity to flourish.

However, Irish Ferries has focused attention on the big issue, which is that the interests of the foreign worker and the Irish worker are not the same, particularly if the foreign worker is prepared to undercut the local lad.

This implies that the next big battle for the unions will be not against Irish capitalists, but against foreign workers. Already, Siptu has begun to employ Polish-speaking organisers to try to co-opt Polish workers into the union movement, but will this be enough? The experience of black Americans over the years suggests not. It remains to be seen whether international worker solidarity can survive the impact of a slowing economy. Let’s hope it doesn’t get too messy.


  1. B.Clamp

    A really interesting article. We can see some of the
    pressures of immigration in the riots by blacks recently in
    Lozells, Birmingham.

    You are right to wonder about what happens when the boom
    ends. The irish used to carry the tagline ‘the blacks of
    europe’ and we discriminated against because of the
    competition in the labour market.

    After the potato famine of 1840 thousands of starving irish
    people moved to the east end of london – to try to get any
    work they could. They were then joined in 1870 by waves of
    persicuted jews.

    The labour market is a function of supply and demand and
    the price of labour dropped below subsistance and deep
    levels of poverty ensued. As documented by Dr Charles Booth
    in his studies on the east end.
    As rents rose, rooms where rented, then people worked and
    slept in shifts in the same bed competing by lowering thier
    labour rate ever further. It was out of this deprivation,
    the Labour movement was formed to demand bettter wages and
    unionisation in two great strikes.
    A few million poles and other Eastern Europeans have had an
    astounding effect on blue collar jobs and vastly bigger
    populations of europes main countries.
    However, there are 80m Turkish muslims to look forward to
    for white collar workers in just a few years time.

  2. Laura

    Interesting article. However you could go deeper and
    examine the extremely uneven playing field that separates
    accession EU workers and native Irish people.

    For example in Ireland only 65% of the population work,
    compared to 75% in Sweden. The differential was
    historically due to high gender inequality levels in the
    workplace. However this is now partially due to the high
    net replacement incomes of some of those dependent on
    social welfare compared to those on an average wage. (For
    example a lone parent with one child who works only 20
    hours a week and receives 80 euros a week in rent allowance
    stands to lose over 100 euros week net if she takes up a
    full time job – even at a rate a euro or two above the
    minimum wage). Even a single male on unemployment benefit
    getting rent supplement has an effective income from the
    state of as much as 260 per week – plus a medical card!

    On the other hand the Polish immigre is not entitled to
    social welfare unless he/she has worked for 2 years – so
    they are forced to take up low paid work if they cannot
    enter their chosen profession. (I reckon this is why you
    have loads of eastern europeans working on building sites
    and in service jobs who have degrees and professional
    qualifications). There is simply no choice but to work.

    I think if either of the following 2 scenarios occured the
    current situation would change dramatically:
    1. Removal or drastic limitations on payments to lone
    parents, unemployed and disabled
    2. Making eastern Europeans automatically entitled to full
    range of social welfare

    This would change the situation dramatically to such a
    point where it would either become impossible to hire at
    all – thus forcing wages upwards, or in which there would
    be huge competition for low paid jobs. Worth thinking
    about.

  3. johnbenett

    Interesting article. Basically what you are saying is that
    blue collar workers are competing more and more with
    immigrants for jobs and that immigrants are suppressing
    wages in these jobs. You say that if the economy turns
    downwards things could get messy. But I think in future
    middle class jobs are going to come under pressure because
    to quote from what laura said

    “I reckon this is why you
    have loads of eastern europeans working on building sites
    and in service jobs who have degrees and professional
    qualifications)”

    So basically in ireland we have a huge pool of
    underemployed immigrants. The question is then why are they
    not working in the professions in which they are qualified.
    Eddie Hobbs alluded to it on his rip off republic series. I
    think things could get very messy when these people start
    competing for middle class jobs. What is unique to the
    immigration into ireland is the very high standard of
    education of many of these immigrants. They will not be
    content to work for years in blue collar jobs the same as
    the irish did in britain and america.

  4. kevin buckley

    Socialist hogwash. People who work be they from Latvia or Leitrim in the
    aggregate add wealth to Ireland. They increase production, increase profits, pay
    taxes, purchase local goods ,start businesses etc etc. Sure a few workers are
    displaced by cheaper labour initially but this is more than compensated for by
    the above examples.A wealthier country in the long run provides better work for
    all. A free and open labour market will keep the tiger healthy and wealthy

  5. Olatunji Idowu

    Qiute honestly i don’t know where you stand on the issue
    of immigration. But i think the last thing this country
    need at this time is stylishly instigating people against
    the necessary immigrants created by the booming economy.

    Not only that Irish people are racist, thay are also
    suffering from insecurity. people like you are afraid of
    what becomes of them when better qualified and willing
    immigrants snatch their jobs.

    The Foreigners may not create the booming economy but they
    help push the economy to another level. the influx of
    immigrants into this country is irreversible especially
    with New member states in the EU.

    I am of the opinion that The Irish government adopt the
    service of Great thinkers in the society to come up with
    the best of ideas that will accommodate citizen and
    foreigners alike, otherwise the choas and destruction of
    properties that happen in Frence recently will be
    inevitable in the future.

    Olatunji Idowu

  6. ssivanand

    Undestanding clearly where Irish people stands on the
    views of immigration, I believe Goverment try to reduce
    the cost’s of education and increase more educational
    Institutes to bring more young irish people to the work
    force rather than complaing of the EU and Non EU work
    force. being within the EU, don’t forget no other country
    benefited than Ireland.
    Even you were employed (bought) by the Irish Independant
    by this blooming money, if I am not wrong…

  7. David Mc Williams

    thanks very much for all your comments, this is probably
    the issue of the future and one i’ll come back to again
    and again. any more ideas please keep ‘em comming

  8. victor

    David, re your own input 19th Jan here:
    I enthusiastically agree. The immigration issue is not
    only key to Ireland, but it is “new”. We are witnessing
    the crumbling of borders globally and many believe that
    this it the clue to global peace. The power of Nations is
    crumbling and the real war is that of vested interests in
    these outmoded political systems verses the new awareness
    that the world is indivisible in this way. Everywhere
    belongs to each individual; aparteid will inevitably fail
    between nations (especially north and south)just as it had
    to in South Africa. I, for one, embrace this future.
    Thanks for your creativity. Be careful. Regards, Victor

  9. victor

    David, re your own input 19th Jan here:
    I enthusiastically agree. The immigration issue is not
    only key to Ireland, but it is “new”. We are witnessing
    the crumbling of borders globally and many believe that
    this it the clue to global peace. The power of Nations is
    crumbling and the real war is that of vested interests in
    these outmoded political systems verses the new awareness
    that the world is indivisible in this way. Everywhere
    belongs to each individual; aparteid will inevitably fail
    between nations (especially north and south)just as it had
    to in South Africa. I, for one, embrace this future.
    Thanks for your creativity. Be careful. Regards, Victor

  10. john

    Kevin says
    “Socialist hogwash. People who work be they from Latvia or Leitrim in the
    aggregate add wealth to Ireland. They increase production, increase profits,
    pay
    taxes, purchase local goods ,start businesses etc etc.”

    This of course is the catchcall of the elites. Labour is but a commodity, and if
    you increase the supply of labour you reduce the cost of it. People’s real
    incomes fall, rent goes up, trains become more crowded, people push out to
    the suburbs and take longer to get to work: it is all bad news for the normal,
    young and unskilled worker. The reason why this is not a problem for kevin is
    because he is – presumably – from the elite stratified Dublin 4 kleptocracy,
    the classes where all the plumb jobs are kept in a protectivist wonderland.
    That, or he is a parasite from the rentier classes, not creating any wealth
    (unlike wealth creating capitalists, owning bricks and morter is a zero sum
    game).

    This class – which viciously protects it’s own interests – demands that
    everyone else suffers as it gets richer, and demands that everyone else
    competes while it remains in a 19th century protectionist wonderland.

    I am no socialist, but Dublin 4 needs to be taxed to the hilt. Since the growth
    unearned wealth of the rentier class is dependent on immigration, and since
    immigration harms the poor and unskilled, lets pay for immigration costs
    ( including integration costs) with a property tax on the rentiers with the
    largest houses. The top 10%. Use that money to offset the lower wages
    ( which are clear from the income tax receipts) of the bottom 20%. Let it be
    linked to the immigration level. I suggest about 90% should do it.

  11. chris

    David has hit the nail on the head about immigration.Im a 37 year old self employed plumber who has been turned away from site after site because my prices were too high.These prices i gave were 2 years old.These greedy builders are only adding fuel to the fire by hiring low paid immigrant workers.As ive discussed with many of my fellow Irish plumbers,its a timebomb waiting to go off.

  12. [...] May 18th, 2007      I have just been doing some research on polish immigration in Ireland. I did a general trawl of the Internet to see what I could find but found little of interest. The immigration figures given in just about all the sites I visited are way below the actual numbers of poles now living here as a five minute stroll around Dublin can confirm. Beyond these questionable statistics there is nothing. And I do mean nothing. This is not my first attempt to do some research in this area. In the short time I have had this blog about one third of the people arriving at my site are using terms such as “polish immigration” and “discrimination against polish workers” in their search engines to get to me.            We know that polish immigration is huge. We know that it has the effect of deflating the wages of other blue collar workers. Some would argue that it is ‘good for the country’ but significantly never actually spell out what the benefits are. In the meantime in 2005 30% of all new house buyers were non nationals, and most of these are East Europeans. Which is to say that the problem (if you consider it a problem) is not going to go away. When immigration into this country first started the expected rate was less than 10,000 per year and if anyone suggested that the figure might go as high as 50,000 they were told that that was just not going to happen that this was all just scaremongering. The clear implication was that yes if the figure reached the 50,000 mark there might well be a problem but there was no reason for concern as it would not exceed 10,000. At this point in time the official figures say that there are about 350,000 immigrants here but that may mean the actual figures are up to ten times that.           While there is little in the way of hard evidence in relation to immigration there is no shortage of opinion. In fact the whole debate is not so much a debate on immigration but rather about our attitude to it. And that means people view the few facts available from the point of view of their own self interest. Those who are better off think it’s the best thing since sliced bread while blue collar workers, having seen their wages decrease, feel quite differently. Nevertheless we can make some basic observations.            Immigration depresses wages. The fact that it may not affect yours is neither here nor there. And with this in mind it is only logical that many working class people are not happy with the current level of immigration. At this point those who are in favour of limitless immigration either call the working class racist or imply that their attitude is one that help foster racism. However the facts don’t support this belief. There is no official racist political party in Ireland but in Britain where the same problems of immigration exits there is. And contrary to the expectations of some who feel this way about the working class and blue collar worker the fact is that the National Front is not gaining in popularity although the press would like you to believe they are. It should also be kept in mind that the press is quite happy to report ‘racist’ crimes which often have nothing to do with race. People who attack a black man in the street and call him nigger are just as likely to attack a gay man or someone who’s fat. Apart from the fact that most working class people do not do this the reality is that these people have probably never even thought about race much less formed a coherent opinion on it.       On the other hand the better off more affluent section are quite happy to believe that all Filipino woman are child minders. I see this every other day where I live. There are several Filipino women in flats in the house in which I live and it is quite common for my Dublin 4 neighbours to drop notes in the door asking these women to contact them re some domestic or child minding employment. The blatant racism behind this is of course sickening.       It is also difficult to say what the level of racism is in the workforce as most Irish employers who exploit Polish workers are equally happy to exploit Irish workers if the opportunity arises. What we can say is that there is very little racism in Ireland. What is often mistaken for racism by people in Ireland has for the most part nothing at all to do with race but a lot to do with beggars on horseback. The attitude that many Irish and the Irish state have towards it’s less well off citizens will also manifest itself in relation to immigrants but this again has nothing to do with racism.        David Mc Williams tells us that immigration favours the professional classes but beyond that fact he tells us nothing we didn’t know about immigration and it is such platitudes that pass for a serious debate on the subject. Posted by sillyoldtwit Filed in discrimination, Uncategorized [...]

  13. Jenny

    Ireland needs to limit immigration to Ireland. If it doesn’t restrict immigration soon, the Irish culture will almost be completely lost. While most Irish people now want restrictions on immigration, the government has yet to fulfill this wish by deporting the thousands of illegal immigrants who are still in Ireland. People who overstay their visas should get sent back and should be banned from re-entering Ireland for a minimum of 10 years. In countries like the US, Australia or New Zealand, you can’t just go there, you need immigration clearance, and it should be the same here. How come Ireland is lagging so far behind most other countries with its relaxed immigration system??

  14. bob norris

    Only landlords and those who want cheap labour benefit from immigration. Everyone else is afraid of being tagged a racist. Being a racist is understood to mean that you support a hierarchy of humanity based on their ethnicity. The herding of people numbering a figure I would estimate as approaching two million from alien cultures is the worst bloody thing that has happened here since the Plantation. This is a fact; not a racist opinion. As most of the people from south-east Dublin – the main supporters of mass immigration – have distinctly british twangs to their accent, I wonder if there is a connection….

  15. ethan coleman

    I found this very interesting, from an American perspective.
    I am an American, and came by this blog starting to research how I can immigrate myself and my family, (wife and 3 y.o. daughter) to Ireland one day. This has somewhat opened my eyes to the sad truth that it may not be so wise, because, although I have proffessional and military experience and decent intelligence and drive, but no college degree, I work insulating houses (semi-skilled manual labor) in a company made up of (I’m guessing but probably pretty close) 10-15% legal caucasion and 85-90% illegal mexican immigrants that do exactly what a couple of the above messages claim. Our industry, here in Columbus, Ohio, hasn’t seen a pay increase of note in ten years (at the worker level), and probably won’t ever, for non-union workers. The owners/ shareholders don’t have to give them, they’ll just get cheaper labor! They (stock holders) get their profits and capital gains increases, though, or the doors would surely close.This seems the same here as there. By 2050, Hipanics will be the largest culture in America, lots of them illegally, and driving down wages due to a willingness to work . This doens’t make me racist for seeing this, and calling it what it is, but it is what it is- and it drives our economic systems. You just, as the working class poor, trying to pay your bills without government assistance, not living 2 or 3 families to an apartment, etc., etc., have to fight harder and work harder to make the elite more money. Welcome to the free market economy, global marketplace.
    Please wait before you draw conclusions or get pissed off about someone else wanting to come to Ireland . I truly believe my cultural and ethnic ancestry to be heavily Irish. I resent my ancestors a little for bringing me here, however they did it, however long ago it was. I look at it immigration more as going home.
    If someone who reads this blog, that knows their way through Irish immigration, (the “How To For Dummies”- so to speak), and can help me, please do. I don’t know until I do some exhaustive research exactly how all of my ancestors came from Europe, but with names like McKinney, Coleman, Lower, and Adkins for grandparents, I probably can trace some Grandparent back to Ireland. Without being registered in the Foreign Births Abroad Registry, I don’t know if that would help or not.
    Even if it did, Irish immigration law may not want another entry level worker coming in, Irish heritage or not.
    Thanks!

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