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Journal of Policy History 15.3 (2003) 324-344

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Diplomacy and Essential Workers:
Official British Recruitment of Foreign Labor in Italy, 1945-1951

Joseph Behar

The recruitment of about seven thousand Italian migrant workers by the postwar British Labour government is an interesting study in the use of foreign labor recruitment as a diplomatic policy. Foreign labor recruitment has generally been regarded as primarily an economic policy, with political ramifications entering into the picture in the form of domestic issues around integration, racism, labor relations and so on. However, the various British schemes to recruit Italian migrant workers from 1945 to 1951, and the discussion around the movement of migrant workers in postwar Europe carried on in various inter-European bodies, illustrate that foreign labor recruitment can be a much more complex phenomenon.

The 1945-51 British Labour government recruited several hundred thousand foreign workers to alleviate labor shortages in so-called essential industries. This official recruitment anticipated a trend in most Western capitalist states in the 1950s and 1960s: economic growth that was facilitated by the importation of large numbers of foreign workers. In the British case, the availability of foreign workers in the form of refugees, prisoners of war, Polish servicemen, and unemployed Europeans allowed the "essential" industries—textiles, mining, and agriculture—to maintain production without extensive refurbishment at a time when native workers could choose more pleasant jobs. In other words foreign workers formed a reserve labor pool that offset the demands labor could make in a market economy short of workers.

This of course is an important function of migrant labor in modern capitalism, as identified by Castles, Kindelberger, Nigel Harris, Robin Cohen, and others. 1 As Saskia Sassen writes: "The availability of immigrant labor reduces the pressure on backward sectors of [End Page 324] the economy to change techniques of production or to improve working conditions unacceptable to national workers." 2 Certainly, as Jim Tomlinson, Peter Hennessey, Corelli Barnett, and others have shown, the Labour government used foreign workers to shore up the postwar British economy rather than undertake massive structural overhaul. 3

However the British use of foreign labor in the immediate postwar years had political as well as economic imperatives. In the case of the recruitment of displaced persons, the mix of economic and political imperatives has been well studied. 4 Resettling Hitler's victims and refugees from the Soviet Union was obviously a political imperative. In the case of free migrant workers recruited from Europe, the interaction between political and economic imperatives was less obvious, though no less strong. As Stephen Castles asserts, until the 1980s "international migration was generally not seen by governments as a central political issue." Rather, writes Castles, migration was treated as an economic or social matter to be dealt with by specialty departments. 5 That was not the case for the postwar British experience of labor recruitment in Italy. Several government departments interacted closely over this recruitment, with the Foreign Office in particular showing an interest that had little to do with the domestic economy.

The economic landscape of postwar Britain has been well documented and the labor shortages of the period acknowledged. 6 Postwar British society was highly regulated. Many goods were rationed through most of this period. Labor too was controlled through ring fences and employment exchanges. Foreign labor was particularly subject to official control and restriction. Foreign workers or their employers needed to obtain Ministry of Labour permits that specified the period of employment and the job for which they were contracted. Failure to live up to the terms of the permit could be used as grounds for deportation. Permits were granted on an individual basis, though under officially sponsored schemes pools of workers could be brought forth under group permits. The regulation of migrant workers was a policy to which the Labour government firmly adhered, despite both domestic and, as we shall see, external pressure to loosen restrictions on foreign workers.

In the aftermath of the war there were two main sources of foreign labor available in...


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