A victory against slavery

Submitted by Anon on 5 June, 2005 - 3:21

By Steve Cohen, No One is Illegal

Victories in the struggle against immigration controls do not come easy or often. Usually the onward march of controls seems endless and remorseless. So we should treasure successes when they happen. And one such success has been against the YMCA.

A few months ago the “Y” agreed to pilot a scheme in Liverpool which amounted to collusion with the Home Office’s attempt to transform refugees into slave labourers by virtue of measures in the 2004 Asylum and Immigration Act.

Section 4 of the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act allows for minimum (“hard case”) housing and other support for some refugees refused status by the Home Office. This bare minimum is available where a failed asylum seeker cannot return home because of circumstances beyond their control — because they are stateless or ill or (paradoxically in the case of a rejected asylum application) the country of return is too dangerous. However the 2004 Act says even this minimum will only be available on condition the refugee undertakes compulsory “community service”.

It this compulsory, involuntary, forced labour which the Y wished to use — on the grounds that this could provide “training” to refugees

But compulsory “community service” is a punishment, something that has hitherto been reserved only for convicted criminals. As such it is clearly a further step in the criminalisation of all those subject to immigration controls. Trade unions in particular need to know aobut the use of such wageless labour.

The legislation itself breaches the most basic of all democratic principle upheld by unions — namely the right of each worker to choose whether or not to give his or her labour power without suffering any penalty as a result of the choice. The penalty at issue here is homelessness and destitution.

This scheme in effect legislates for slave labour — which is the crudest form of sweated labour. It is in breach of the 1930 Forced Labour Convention of the International Labour Organisation to which the UK a signatory. The Convention defines forced labour as meaning “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. Because asylum-seekers selected for the scheme will become homeless and destitute unless they perform the required community services/labour, this cannot be classified as a “voluntary” agreement to work.

The scheme has been condemned by the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the House of Lords/House of Commons. The criticism is again one of slave labour. In particular the report attacks the legislation as being in breach of Article 4(2) of the European Convention of Human Rights (prohibition of forced labour), of Article 3 (prohibition on inhuman or degrading treatment) and of Article 14 (no discrimination on grounds of nationality).

There is Home Office hypocrisy in their promotion of this scheme. Two examples can be given.

First a correct objection to the asylum legislation generally is that most asylum seekers are prohibited from working — whereas here (unpaid) work is compulsory.

Second the 2004 Act imposes a penalty of imprisonment for trafficking people for forced (slave) labour. Maybe the Home Secretary should send himself to prison!

The YMCA in Liverpool has been forced to climb down from the scheme — and to acknowledge its compulsory, slave like nature. This was as a result of a political campaign initiated by the No One Is Illegal Manifesto Group — which gained the support of asylum seeker organisations in Liverpool.

It is indicative of the huge uphill political struggle required against immigration controls that in the twenty first century a success against slavery can be regarded as a victory. But the struggle against this new form of slavery must continue. Other organisations, whether in the private, local authority or voluntary sector may attempt to take advantage of the scheme. Lord Rooker in the House of Lord’s committee stage of the legislation specifically called on the voluntary sector to become involved. The legislation itself states that: “A local authority… may undertake to manage or participate in arrangements for community activities”. This is a reminder of the old Poor Laws where parishes would contract in forced labour from the work-house.

Rooker also said in that community service might involve refugees “contributing to the upkeep or maintenance of their own accommodation” This is a formula for the free repair of otherwise unlettable council (and voluntary sector or private property) to which asylum seekers are involuntarily “dispersed” — which can then be rented out at a profit once the slave is deported

In immigration newspeak Rooker called this “social cohesion”. It is more like social disintegration

What you can do

  • Ask your trade union branch to pass a resolution against the compulsory labour scheme and to notify the Home Secretary
  • Be alert to any Home Office attempt to involve your or any other company or agency in the scheme
  • Invite a speaker from No One Is Illegal to your trade union or any other relevant meeting. (No One Is Illegal email is info@noii.org.uk.)