Why do we treat some workers as replaceable?

By treating migrants as threats to our national safety, Britain has only damaged itself

October 28, 2021
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Islandstock / Alamy Stock Photo

The milkshake eludes McDonald’s, the chickens have flown from Nando’s. Britain, looking winter-ward, grovels. In a campaign of epistolary persuasion worthy of Jane Austen, the British government has written to almost a million HGV drivers in the wake of Brexit and Covid-related restrictions, asking that they return to an industry gasping for labour power. Temporary visas have been made available to over 5,000 European lorry drivers and a similar number of poultry workers, declaring that while we may have been cruel, while our environment may have been hostile, we miss our drivers desperately and hope they will find it in their hearts to save Christmas.

The national sickness that prompts this kind of humiliating prostration might usefully be compared to an autoimmune disorder. Hostility to migrant bodies in the era of Covid-19 has, after all, been positioned as a matter of “immunitary” defence. In any immunitary unit (a nation state, a household, a body), a collective agrees to adopt a system of protection. It isn’t hard to see how arranging borders and other means of separation begin to emerge as essential aspects of that system. In this way, a nation’s defensive postures against “foreign” bodies seem to mirror the immune response of the body to a pathogen. As is clear from the sorry scenes of Britain pleading for chickens, it is more than possible to suffer from an “excess of immunity.” In an autoimmune response, the body over-identifies the threat and stages an assault on itself.

In the spring of 2020, just weeks into the US government’s admission of vulnerability to coronavirus, Trump announced on Twitter the following immunitary measure: “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to project the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration to the United States.”

Stephen Miller, one of its authors, was reported to have proclaimed in a conference call that “Americans of every political stripe” would rally behind the initiative. “Those individuals have a right and an expectation,” he supposed, “to get their jobs back and not to be replaced by foreign workers.” This, he concluded, was a historic act.

If such an act was historic, it seems remarkably consistent with established thinking. Aligning the movements of foreigners with the virus’s aptitude for invasion, the order was a tidy summary of the state’s immunitary discourse. The migrant is a public liability; the border is our safeguard. Just as a U-turn is now necessary in a Britain sucked dry of supermarket goods, Trump’s immigration suspension was rapidly amended to allow for the continued “invasion” of essential medical and agricultural workers—a swift recognition of the order’s inevitable autoimmune effect.

In a world where rhetorical division between “us” and “them” is given new currency, those in power have used the excuse of immunisation to justify the continued and systemic exploitation of society’s usual scapegoats. As the political philosopher Roberto Esposito describes it, members of this disempowered class are not immunised, but rather de-munised: stripped of the benefits and rewards that they have been promised for their dutiful actions. The de-munised—demonised—subject inhabits the worst of all possible worlds: obliged to give to a community that refuses to extend its safety nets. In this world a migrant workforce of carers and cleaners, delivery and transport workers—many of them casual labourers without sick pay or adequate rights—have toiled throughout the pandemic to protect the “immunity” enjoyed by workers-from-home.

Central to the de-munisation of Britain’s immigrant workforce is their replaceability. Threats of dismissal or deportation for both documented and undocumented migrants force them to accept ever more undignified working conditions and sub-legal pay. Platform labour (where apps appear to replace the mediation of bosses), subcontracting and, lately, “fire-and-rehire” exemplify efforts to circumvent workers’ legal protections—whether those workers have citizen status or not.

One is not born, but rather made replaceable—which is to say that the endlessly replaceable worker arises from a specific situation. The Italian writer and mythographer Roberto Calasso pinpoints a transformative moment in the history of replacement that runs parallel to the history of sacrifice. While in the earliest forms of sacrifice the victim was deemed irreplaceable, over time it became acceptable to make use of a stand-in. In the mythos of the Trojan War, a sacrifice had to be made before the Greeks could first set sail: King Agamemnon had to kill his daughter Iphigenia for favourable winds. Yet in certain retellings, Iphigenia is snatched from the altar at a crucial moment and is replaced by a deer of equal worth.

Such acts of replacement conform to what Calasso describes as a reduction of sacrifice to an act of “pure exchange.” The violence of the act is obscured by the language used to describe it, suggesting an imagined neutrality of a godless invisible hand. In working life, so long as the trade appears ostensibly “fair” on the surface, those who ultimately profit from the transaction can do so without judgment or blame. By these means delivery drivers who have provided the wheels of Covid-time commerce were thrown, without ritual, to the mercy of the plague. Boris Johnson has said “there can be no return to the old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity,” as if the denigration of migrant workers, their effective sacrifice, were nothing but a curious outcome of the market’s natural push-and-pull.

A supposed classicist to his core, Johnson is no doubt aware of the question raised by the Ship of Theseus: if every part of the ship is replaced, one at a time and over many years, does it continue to be the same ship even when none of the original parts remain?

While typically framed as a metaphysical problem, the paradox of the Ship of Theseus is also a political one. In the end, its answer depends on whom or what we think of as truly “replaceable.” To the Greeks, the only irreplaceable being in the thought experiment was Theseus himself, or more accurately the valour his name symbolically conferred. As drivers reject the unacceptable terms of their re-summoning, we might hope we are moving closer to the ship's reimagination—as no more irreplaceable than the workers who for so long have maintained it.