Cheap migrant labour is a boon to the well-off, but it’s time for a frank discussion on how it affects society’s poor

Do you like foreign accents? If the answer is yes, you are in a minority. When someone with a heavy accent speaks to you, do you register the things he or she is saying in the same way as someone with the same accent as yourself?

The subtle prejudices we have about accents are hardwired in our brains from thousands of years ago, when it was highly unlikely for a person with one accent to meet a person with another. It was even less likely for a person to hear a foreigner speak their native language with a foreign accent.

But this is all changing. There have never been more foreign accents in Ireland. And we are no exception. Right now, 250 million people are living in countries they were not born in, speaking languages that are not their native tongues.

Fascinating recent studies show how our brains have not caught up with this reality and how we process foreign accents. One study by Shiri Lev-Ari, a psycholinguist at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in Amsterdam, asked non-native speakers of Polish, Turkish, Austrian-German, Korean and Italian to record banal statements such as “Ants don’t sleep” in English. Native English speakers recorded the same things. When native English speakers rated the recordings for their veracity, they rated the speakers with the heaviest accents as least true, while native speakers were rated most true.

It is thought that these negative judgments and prejudices are the result of the additional effort that our brains must make to process foreign speech. But this fear of, or resistance to, the foreign is also a latent form of self-protection, because the notion of coming into contact with someone who speaks differently triggers deep psychological alarm bells. The history of humanity is the story of one tribe conquering another, one crowd invading the space of another and typically enslaving the loser. Therefore, an encounter with someone who sounded different probably ended violently and badly for one party.

Thus, deep in our brains, the very sound of someone with a foreign accent triggers doubts, insecurities and prejudices.

These prejudices and fears bring me to immigration and the refugee issue that is tearing the EU asunder.

Greece is the frontline, and it is being told to deal with thousands of migrants while Austria, Hungary and Slovakia shut the door. Because the other EU countries are closing their borders, Greece is becoming a “human skip” into which the EU is happy to dump countless refugees.

It is like a giant Gaza Strip, teeming with people who want to move, but are not allowed to. And what is the cause of Greece’s problems? German policy over which the Greeks and the rest of the EU have no influence.

Germany wants the rest of the EU to take its “fair share” of what many EU countries see as Germany’s migrants. Germany invited them in, so many European countries are saying: “You deal with them, they’re your problem.” This division is particularly stark between the central European, former communist countries and Germany.

There are many theories about why this is so, but what divides the European countries on immigration is money. At its core, modern immigration is a class issue.

Immigrants, by definition, compete with the poorest local people in the job market, in the housing market and for access to health and schools. This is a fact.

Economists tend to miss the central point. While the economy might get workers, society gets people.

Therefore the technocratic language of the economy is not able to deal with the totality of immigration and can’t deal with the fact that there are winners and losers in this game.

If you have (like me) the luxury of writing for the newspapers and working as an economist, or have a professional position with status and influential networks, there’s little chance that a new immigrant will take your job. If, on the other hand, you are labouring on the sites or working in a bar, there’s a serious chance that your wages and job security will be affected by new people coming into the country looking for work.

When the borders open, the real labour force of a country like Ireland isn’t two million, but closer to the 300 million of the whole EU, plus the new migrants. This is what scares people who compete with the migrants for everything.

But for the relatively wealthy, immigration has been a boon. There are more taxi drivers, more cleaners, more shop assistants, more nannies; in short, the service economy, the one that services the relative wealthy, booms. But are wages in that sector booming? No.

The relatively wealthy don’t have to worry about immigrants pushing up rents because, frankly, the immigrants can’t afford to live in posh areas, so they compete for housing not with the relatively wealthy, but with the relatively poor.

It’s a similar story in schools. Immigrant kids don’t, by and large, go to private schools. They go to state schools, where they compete for the state’s resources with Irish citizens.

These are the facts. Immigration is a class issue, and the richer you are, the greater the luxury you have to pontificate about immigration because either you are not affected; or if you are, you are affected positively.

We should no longer fear foreign accents or process them in the way our brain still does, conditioned as it is from millenniums of fight-or-flight impulses. However, this does not mean we shouldn’t understand the real economic sensitivities that are different in different classes.

Although you wouldn’t know it from listening to the election debates, migration is one of the key issues for this society and Europe. It would be a good thing if we began to discuss it openly, and most critically, when the discussion brings us into uncomfortable territory.

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