Anti-migrant politics weakens the workers’ movement

On both the left and the right, people pit migrants' rights against workers' rights. That attitude only serves the interests of the powerful, writes Amardeep Dhillon.

April 3, 2019 · 14 min read
Eyes On Rights / Flickr

Among the left as well as the right, the supposed “legitimate concerns” of indigenous (implicitly, white) workers are used to build a mandate for hard borders, pitting ‘workers’ against ‘migrants’ as if those were mutually-exclusive demographics. Amid a determination to unite the Labour vote split by the Brexit referendum, the nativism of prominent parts of the left breathes life into the very prejudices and social myths it castigates the right for inflaming.

At the heart of this narrative is the idea that migrants drive down wages. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. Migrants – both documented and undocumented – are responsible for pushing the struggle for workers’ rights back into the public consciousness. The refusal of some factions of the left to fully recognise this isn’t just dangerous for migrants. It divides the working class, distracts from the real causes of poverty and inequality, whilst similarly obscuring the potential for policies currently directed at migrants to be expanded to “unskilled” workers in general.

Under the hostile environment that has openly been government policy since 2012, so-called “unskilled” migrant workers constitute a particularly vulnerable workforce. The inhumane policy has torn families apart, destroyed lives and intensified xenophobia, cultivating a violent rhetoric around undocumented migrants and demonising “lawful” migrants (with citizens of colour swept up in the ensuing media frenzy). But it’s important to recognise that Theresa May’s brainchild is more than a nativist project: an effect of the racism it has sanctioned is that indefinite detention, the rescinding of citizenship, the criminalisation of work and the staggered conditionality of welfare have become positively centrist policies, currently focused on undocumented migrants but paving the way for a more general erosion of rights in favour of privileges.

Race and the labour movement

The labour movement has its own history of reproducing the racist and exclusionary tendencies of the institutions it was in conflict with. “An effective colour bar” was supported by unions operating in British industry between the world wars, and rhetoric characterising migrants as “scab workers”, supposedly undercutting native workers as sources of cheap labour, was prominent through the ‘40s and ‘50s. Strikes by Asian workers in the ‘60s were often supported by community organisations rather than trade unions (with the notable exception of the Indian Workers Association) and it was only in the ‘70s – with the rise of the National Front, a series of damning instances of union negligence towards mobilised black workers and a shift in the TUC’s official policy towards active anti-racism – that trade unions began to haltingly align themselves in practice with anti-racism.

In the 21st Century, with the decline of trade unions since the ‘70s, the larger unions have made unsteady efforts to appeal to migrant and BAME workers, in an attempt to shore up a decimated membership. Unison’s Migrant Worker Participation Project and Unite’s Migrant Worker Support Unit, both funded by the Union Modernisation Fund under Blair, identified the need for proactive approaches to encouraging proportionate migrant participation at all levels of union activism, as well as the need to mainstream “migrant” issues and tackle workplace discrimination. It must be stressed that BAME trade unionists have done tremendous work in forcing these issues to the fore of the labour movement in recent years. While progress was undoubtedly made – for example, in 2009 Unison partnered with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants to launch a free immigration telephone advice line for its non-EU migrant members – the failure to engage consistently with existing community groups that are already focal points of migrant organisation has limited the efficacy of these measures.

Carceral cosmopolitanism

However insufficient they have proven to be thus far, these efforts have become more crucial than ever since the adoption of the hostile environment policy. The 2006 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act criminalised the employment of migrants without permission to work in the UK, with thousands of pounds of fines and a two year prison sentence awaiting non-compliant employers. As early as 2008, a report by Migrants’ Rights Network found that the hostile environment’s civil penalty regime had enabled employers to target active unionised workers involved in trade disputes. The burden of surveillance has been passed from the state onto employers (as well as landlords, banks and briefly the NHS), and the result is the empowering of bosses at workers’ expense, heightening climates of fear and mistrust in migrant-majority workforces. To resist these racialised surveillance techniques, proactive trade union involvement is crucial.

It’s important to remember that the implications of immigration policy under the hostile environment aren’t limited to “unskilled” work. Migrants on Tier 2 “skilled worker” visas are entitled to no more than twenty days’ unpaid leave annually for their visas to remain valid – in other words, workers who unexpectedly find themselves compelled to take industrial action could face deportation for their efforts. While the plight of “skilled workers” has been a high-profile clarion call for Remainers, however, the focus on the prospective post-Brexit “brain drain” perpetuates elitist attitudes that differentiate between the “good” (skilled) and the “bad” (unskilled) immigrant. Employment is the most significant area of discrimination for migrant and BAME people in Europe across the board, and in the UK the spike in racial hate crime following the Brexit referendum has only compounded this.

In 2014, a report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council found that countries in the Global North, including the UK, actively engage in “carceral cosmopolitanism” – facilitating migrants’ inability to refuse the low-paid, insecure work on offer by enabling conditional migration over tightening borders. The report terms this situation “hyper-precarity”, whereby migrant workers face the twin dangers of precarious work and contingent immigration statuses, ominously concluding that “with rising conditionality in the welfare state, and the erosion of social citizenship, the position of insecure migrants may simply be a stark exposure of a growing precarity for all.”

In the face of such real danger, facing some of the most exploitative practises of the gig economy, it is migrant workers that have been leading a nascent resurgence of union activity in the UK. While particular circumstances have seen local community campaigns supported by the heavyweights of the TUC, it’s been the newer, smaller, tenacious unions that have achieved a heady string of successes over the last few years, amidst a resurgence of grassroots activity to unionise precarious workers. Championing a radical approach embracing direct action, strikes and sit-ins while making savvy use of social media, the sister unions International Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW) have taken on universities and government departments to win landmark victories for workforces largely made up of migrant and BAME workers.

Fighting back

With the support of IWGB, James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam of the United Private Hire Drivers union – the largest union in the sector with over 1200 members – won a victory against Uber when the courts ruled that it had unlawfully classified its workers as “independent contractors.” In 2017 UPHD voted to become a branch of IWGB, citing them as “the de facto union for the gig economy,” and together they faced down two appeals from Uber over the 2016 verdict. As well as court action, IWGB orchestrated the UK’s first nationwide strike of Uber drivers and led hundreds of precarious workers in a protest against precarity supported by a range of unions, activist groups and workers. Following the landmark victory, IWGB are now challenging Sadiq Khan’s “congestion tax” on the basis of indirect discrimination – black cab drivers (80% of whom are white) are exempt from the tax but private hire drivers (94% of whom are BAME) are not. IWGB has so far organised nine occupations of Parliament Square and London Bridge by drivers to protest the discriminatory policy, with hundreds turning up each week. These targeted actions in the courts and the streets have raised the profile of hundreds of thousands of migrant and BAME workers in the press, and the two-pronged approach of direct action and legal challenges has been incredibly effective.

Utilising similar strategies, the London-wide campaigns Justice for Cleaners have seen a range of unions and community groups come together to take on corporations, government departments and universities – and the backlash has been as arresting as the victories. In 2017 UVW mobilised the largest strike in UK history of cleaners from a single workplace – all of whom were migrant and BAME – co-ordinating disruptive occupations of premises and protests with student activists. LSE’s cleaners have subsequently been brought in-house as employees and promised parity of pay with existing employees, but the campaign exposed the ways in which the hostile environment is used to stifle dissent and promote maximum profit margins for contracted companies. LSE cleaners told of undocumented migrants paying managers for guaranteed work, homophobic abuse and sexual harassment as commonplace and work practices designed to isolate workers as standard. It was UVW’s reputation as “a fighting union” that prompted cleaners to reach out to them at a time when Unite and Unison had a presence on campus but had failed to do anything to challenge the treatment of the migrant workforce. While the established unions began at the negotiating table, UVW began with engagement with the workers and direct action (even facilitating English-Spanish language exchanges to promote workplace unity between different demographics of the workforce). The visibility this afforded an “invisible” workforce at a so-called progressive institution was as powerful as the demands being made. Similar campaigns at SOAS and Goldsmiths have equally relied on these tactics with resounding success, while KCL has come under fire for suspending the access cards of (mainly BAME) students active in the campaign.

By virtue of their membership, IWGB and UVW are already locked into a struggle against the hostile environment in tandem with their struggles for workers’ rights. Empowering all workers to fight for job security, fair pay, better working conditions and equal treatment necessarily involves combatting the racist and classist underpinnings of the treatment of precarious workers. These campaigns put paid to the unsubstantiated claims that migrants drive down wages that have been levelled in bad faith for almost a century. As Shiri Shalmy of UVW puts it: “It is often migrants who push wages up. When migrant workers have got nothing left to lose, they fight, and when they win, everyone wins.

Lessons for larger unions

The larger unions have a lot to learn. Actively mobilising and training migrant workforces, and centring migrants in education and inclusivity initiatives, is vital. Crucially, the hand-wringing over whether to prioritise migrants themselves or the traditional white working class membership base (and so to implicitly pander to assumed anti-migrant sentiments) has to end. “It is much harder to give people the confidence to organise when they feel threatened by the authorities that are meant to protect their legal rights at work,” explains Shalmy: “UVW members demonstrate that the ‘white working class’ is a myth – the working class in the UK is Black, Asian, Latinx and white, migrant and local. Building this solidarity between workers, and creating organising opportunities beyond the workplace, are the best ways to combat racism and xenophobia.”

Multiple reports have additionally concluded that the function of trade unions, in the context of the hostile environment, is fundamentally required to expand to the role of civil society actors with an unashamed pro-migrant agenda. And the larger unions are uniquely placed to influence labour governmental policy. As well promoting the entitlement of undocumented workers to employment rights, the TUC should aggressively support the regularisation of all existing undocumented migrants in the UK – without this, the promise of the right to organise in the workplace does little more than elevate the risk of detainment and deportation by the Home Office. Additionally, unions should support Labour councils in following the examples of Lewisham and Southwark and expelling On Site Immigration Officers that facilitate deportations.

What about the Labour Party?

Despite its claims to being the natural party of a diverse labour group, from a policy perspective the Labour Party remains slow to respond to its grassroots movements that are often comprised of and supportive of migrants. The decision by Momentum-led Haringey Council to proceed with the dispossession of working class migrants at Latin Village, and Southwark Council’s controversial regeneration of another Latin hub at Elephant and Castle signed off by Sadiq Khan, are particularly troubling examples of a purportedly socialist movement pursuing neoliberal projects. It’s evident that working class migrant communities are still treated as collateral at a local level, even under Labour councils.

At a national policy level, Labour’s promises to end freedom of movement post-Brexit have been at odds with much of its membership, potentially decimating families across Britain to accommodate hardline Brexiteers. Thankfully, its recent u-turn to back freedom of movement signals an acknowledgement of the dangers of such an approach. With migration to Europe forecasted to reach up to a million a year by 2100, it is imperative that we have an immigration policy that prepares for that eventuality – and hard borders do nothing for workers’ rights. It’s time for the Labour Party to come out unequivocally in support of migration as well as migrants rights, and unions should be front of centre in pushing for this.

Solidarity begins at home

Finally, whilst advocating for workers’ rights and a repeal of the anti-trade-union laws brought in by Conservative governments, and appealing to the Labour Party for a more progressive approach to undocumented migrants, unions need to be open to working with existing organising networks at a local level. There is a reason that community and faith groups have been central in campaigns like the London Living Wage, for example: unions dominated by white men at a national level are not seen to be open to listening to migrant workers on the ground. Top-down approaches to unionisation aren’t always effective, and rather than parachuting organisers to the negotiating table unions need to be platforming the workers themselves, however radical their demands may seem.

Migrants are the canary in the coalmine of workers’ rights. With the dual rise of worker precarity and xenophobic public discourse the labour movement needs to remember that it has as much to learn as it does to offer. At a local, national and party political level, it will take an ideological shift to uproot the foundations of the hostile environment, irrespective of the likelihood of a Labour government. If trade unions are not leading the charge, they don’t deserve the tentative resurgence in relevancy recently delivered on the backs of migrant workers. It’s time to make a positive case for migration central to the fight for workers’ rights: the struggle against global capitalism cannot take place in a vacuum. Now more than ever, international solidarity must begin at home.


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