In October last year Bill Rammell, minister for education and lifelong learning, announced massive cuts in the funding of 'English as a Second or Other Language Courses'. On the 15th January, the University and Colleges Union held a public meeting in London of a mounting coalition of trade unionists, ESOL teachers and migrant and refugee organisations to 'launch' the 'fight back'.
Existing universal entitlement to free ESOL training up to level 2 is to be removed with fee remission available only to people receiving means tested benefits and tax-credits. Migrant workers are told that that if they choose to come here they should foot the bill themselves or that their employers should. Usually it takes 100 hours of ESOL provision to gain general proficiency; the cost of 30 hours will be £200 shutting the door on the majority of ESOL learners already struggling to get by. This because the demand was too high!
Unions have no legal bargaining rights and little leverage to take action on behalf of workers to secure money for training from bosses who, as it is, readily keep the majority of migrant workers below a living wage. A recent shocking example of this is in the Katsouris factories in Acton, where No Sweat is working with the GMB for union recognition: two workers in recent months have lost fingers in workplace accidents that the union insist would have been prevented had Katsouris bosses provided training in Tamil and Gujerati, let alone bear the costs of English classes. And this is a large employer that supplies M&S, Tesos, Sainsbury's and Waitrose.
To apply for fee remission, a 20-page means-testing form has to be filled out in English!, creating particular barriers to women who have no independent income, and would need their partners to fill in the form. Already migrants who have British spouses must wait a year for to be eligible in their own right to access courses! With these cuts, if you're an unwaged or low waged woman who lives with a partner, your lifeline to a broader society - beyond the often oppressively narrow ethnic, national and religious communities - depends on the cooperation of that partner. Speakers from the floor condemned this further attack on the independence of women and pointed to increased isolation of women experiencing domestic violence and abuse. Children's advocates warned of the addtioinal pressure put on young people who would increasingly become the only English speakers in a family.
Rammell, last week, defended one of the most grotesque of his attacks- cutting ESOL provision for asylum seekers over 19. Rammell makes no attempt to hide the government's accelerated assault on asylum seekers saying:
"Some are angered by the fact that asylum seekers over 19 will no longer get free provision. Yet, with almost 80% of asylum claims now being settled in eight weeks, and well over half of these unsuccessful, is it really right that taxpayers' money should support the learning of English for people whom we expect to leave the country? Most reasonable people wouldn't think so."
Bill is more upfront than our union leaders. It took speakers from the floor to contextualise and deplore this new Blairite attack on asylum seekers, while from top table, we heard a lot about the government owing a little something to hyper-exploited workers, for 'boosting the economy'.
This campaign has to urgently move beyond the current 'strategy' of submitting case studies, with MPs signing toothless Early Day Motions (383) and a planned lobby on the 28th February. Our trade union movement, which has a patchy record of defending migrant workers and asylum seekers, cannot let these far-reaching and grossly hypocritical New Labour cuts come into effect. To challenge racism and the marginalisation of migrant workers, so that all workers have the means to communicate to unite, we must be prepared not just to make appeals to government that knows what it is doing, but to force a retreat through industrial action.