International Workers’ Day yesterday commemorated the lives of several trade union organisers who were executed in 19th-century America after struggling for an 8-hour working day. Over a century later, workers across the world continue to be punished for battling for better conditions.
In the case of migrant workers, that punishment is sometimes carried out using the mechanisms of immigration enforcement. In 2009, at least six cleaners employed by a contractor for SOAS University of London were deported after being summoned to a fake meeting at which they were ambushed by immigration officials, following their successful campaigns for union recognition and the London Living Wage.
Migrant workers – or more accurately, what politicians and some segments of the public think about them – are centre stage in the run-up to the negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU, and the looming general election.
It seems that the Conservative Party will maintain its commitment to reducing net migration to the “tens of thousands”, despite what the Financial Times has called the “incompatibility” of the target with the flourishing of the UK’s economy.
Yet Brexit minister David Davis has acknowledged that Brexit will not necessarily result in fewer migrant workers coming to the UK, remarking that immigration levels will “rise as well as fall“ on the BBC’s Question Time in April. The Labour Party this week set out its stall too: “freedom of movement has to go”, with cuts to migrants’ access to benefits on the table too.
Most conversations about migrant workers proceed as if they are disposable cogs in the UK’s economy that can be neatly slotted into the labour market to plug gaps in labour supply. The most recent indications of what the UK’s post-Brexit migration policy might look like suggest the proliferation of visas tying migrants to a particular sector, shorter-term permissions to remain in the UK, restricted access to benefits and public services, and highly limited routes to settlement.
At the same time, many are keeping a watchful eye on the extent to which immigration control and labour market enforcement will converge as the new Director of Labour Market Enforcement takes the helm of the recently-expanded Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, with a mandate to use new Immigration Act powers tackle both exploitation and illegal working.
The reality of labour migration is not what policymakers would have you believe. Migrant workers are first of all human beings, with rights and entitlements like anyone else, enshrined in a panoply of international human rights conventions.
Moreover, many of the labour migration measures that politicians currently support and propose are likely to produce the kind of vulnerability to exploitation that they say they want to avoid. What worker can afford to raise a dispute with an employer over partial payment of wages, for example, when losing their job would see them with no social security net to fall back on, or worse, being required to leave the country?
More broadly, there is a clear moral basis for arguing that migrant workers have the right to be joined by their family and apply for settlement in a country that they have come to call home.
The last two weeks have seen a brilliant show of defiance to the tightening attitudes of bosses and politicians to migrant workers. Cleaners at the London School of Economics who are members of the United Voices of the World Union voted overwhelmingly to strike every single week until they win victory in their dispute with the company that employs them. And the security guards affiliated to the IWGB Union are going on strike at London University, as they battle for an end to zero-hours contracts and precarious employment.
A look at the terms and conditions that migrant workers are pushing for makes clear that their struggles are unsurprisingly closely twinned with those of the broader working population in the UK: for dignity, respect, and equal treatment in the workplace.
As the political debates on Brexit and the election rage around us, and especially in the week of International Workers’ Day, it’s a useful point to remember.