[Note – yup, this was supposed to go up yesterday…technical difficutlies]

CNT May Day Poster

So while all the world (except the U.S.) celebrates the working man and woman and the acheivements of organized labor, many groups will be putting an extra emphasis on the issues specific to immigrant, and particularly illegal immigrant labor. It’s looking like the conversation about “well, what would we do without them” that’s been going on in the U.S. for a while, is also starting to be muttered in parts of Europe now.

In 2006 on May First, in the U.S., groups organized “A Day Without Immigrants: immigrant workers were encouraged to leave their jobs for the day, to make their presence felt by way of their absence, and to demonstrate for more sensible immigration and legalization legislation. From CNN:

Throngs of immigrants and advocates took to the streets of many U.S. cities Monday to protest proposed immigration laws, and the sites represented a veritable where’s where of American metropolises…

…Chicago was the site of one of the largest protests, with about 300,000 demonstrators marching downtown, according to the city’s emergency management center. Predominantly Latino schools in the city saw a 10 to 33 percent drop in attendance.

As protesters marched through the Windy City’s business district, some waved Mexican and American flags and carried signs that read, “We’re not terrorists” and “We build your homes.”

The rhetorical device of “well, imagine if we all left” was made real on that day. (It was also made into what was, by most accounts, a pretty bad comedy film  – A Day Without Mexicans. Reviews here. Funnily offensive review I stumbled across here.)

And it looks like the hypothetical, the thought “but what if they all left?” is starting to be whispered around Europe now. I was spurred to remember the 2006 protests when I read this article in the Independent, about the possibility of all the Poles going back to Poland. The Polish government it seems is on a campaign to bring it’s many emigrants home again:

Last week, the Polish government unveiled an audacious plan to lure skilled workers back home. The newly elected Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, who swept to power six months ago with a pledge to encourage migrant workers to return, announced that he planned to run adverts in English and Polish language newspapers in this country.

At the same time, a “handbook for re-emigrants” is to be given away with Polish newspapers and at cultural centres in the UK. It will advise Poles how to find accommodation back home, and apply for special resettlement loans. It will also tell about a series of measures aimed at encouraging them to return – including a five-year amnesty for migrant workers who have failed to pay tax at home while working abroad.

Now, the migration of Eastern Europeans to Britain is apparently the largest in that country’s modern history, about a million have arrived since those countries joined the EU. And though I can relay anecdotal evidence from conversations with Britons and Irish that there has been some resentment and discrimination, it’s also clear they enjoy (and Brits and Irish appreciate) their reputation for being incredibly hardworking and more reliable than domestic labor. This is also their reputation here in Spain, though they’re not quite as visible a community.

It’s a funny “be careful what you wish for” situation almost. People complain about the immigrants, but then panic starts to set in:

The figures are supported by a welter of anecdotal evidence that the Poles are indeed going home. There’s the head of a construction firm in London who says 30 per cent of his Polish workers never returned back to Britain after the Christmas break. Or the budget airline (SkyEurope) which has withdrawn its Polish routes. There’s the fish farm in the Highlands struggling to recruit new workers. And a local migrants’ advice committee group in Derby which says 500 of the city’s 6,000 Poles have returned.

Especially interesting is that Eastern European workers have had the largest impact on the countryside, where sometimes they are as much as 13% of the labor force. This is where the parallel with the U.S. and it’s dependence on Mexican agricultural workers is most striking:

Nowhere does the fear of a sudden return to eastern Europe strike more deeply than in the countryside. In the low-lying Fens, a tractor chugs through a field followed by half a dozen workers stooping to pick vegetables. The only person who’s British is the tractor driver. The rest are all from eastern Europe. This is the face of the modern British countryside, where workers from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland prop up our beleagured agricultural sector.

And some words from the farmer:

“They’re keen to work, they get on with the job. Bit hard to understand them, mind,” he shouts over a portable TV blaring out R&B hits in tractor cab. Five or six years ago, those following in the wake of his tractor would have been a mix of students, immigrants and some locals. Now he’s all but given up trying to use local lads. “In my experience, the English people don’t really want to do it too much,” he adds. “These eastern Europeans want the work and they’re keen to work, they’ll keep working till dark….”

That’s it: I just thought this was an appropriate thing to think about on May Day: what if they all just left?

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