Organising Migrant Workers

Submitted by Off The Rails on 19 February, 2008 - 1:16

Private companies’ drive to make profit has attacked our pay and conditions. With more use of agency and temporary staff, our jobs are becoming more casual. Employers want a ‘flexible’ workforce to suit their needs, without the burden of providing basic rights such as sick pay or job security.

Migrant workers have provided a flexible pool of labour for bosses to exploit, as part of their general erosion of workers’ rights. There has been a rise in ‘legal’ immigration from the EU since the early 90s. In 2004, 10 states, mainly ex-Stalinist countries, joined the EU, and 470,000 workers have entered the UK from those countries since. 80% work for £4.50 - £5.99 an hour, 48% in temporary jobs and many cannot access benefits. Many work in the rail and transport industries, especially in cleaning, catering and for sub-contractors on the P-way and on projects.

Even riper for exploitation are workers without ‘legal’ immigration status: ‘failed’ asylum seekers, visa overstayers, or those have been trafficked here. Around 500,000 ‘illegal’ workers are in the UK. With no right to work, bosses can ignore their employment rights. When employers want rid of staff, they can simply ring the home office; it’s easier to deport someone than sack them. The most striking example of the vulnerability of those without papers is the fate of trafficked workers such as the Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2004. Totally dependent on their employer for their life here, they must suffer unsafe conditions and unliveable wages in silence.

The government has brutal anti-migrant measures, from dawn raids on family homes, to detention centres, to workplace raids which can carry entire workforces off to be detained. Although the government and the bosses want migrants here for easy exploitation, it pays better if they are kept in fear. The governments call it ‘managed migration’, migration on their terms without care for the lives of the migrants they exploit. In March 2008 a ‘points-based’ system will be introduced, with more migration rights for those thought to be useful to the economy. This is the ultimate expression of the government’s policy of using migrants for their labour and disregarding their rights.

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The struggles of migrant workers do not threaten UK workers. If all workers, legal and illegal, were well organised, wages as a whole would rise. It would undermine the bosses’ drive to casualise the job market while we compete for low-waged and temporary work. Unions have taken some good initiatives, such as the T&G’s Justice for Cleaners Campaign for office workers in London’s banking centre, and the GMB’s migrant workers’ branch in Southampton.

Unions need to adapt their strategies, such as translating campaign materials – eg. RMT has produced an employment rights booklet in Polish as well as English – and providing immigration advice. Migrant workers, not professional union organisers, must be in control of their campaigns. RMT’s Tube cleaners’ campaign has been a good example, with cleaners’ meetings electing reps and committees. But self-organisation does not mean vulnerable workers struggling alone. Again RMT led on this by initially organising the cleaners into Finsbury Park branch, with better-organised grades supporting cleaners as an act of solidarity.

There have been several good examples of how support from other grades has won advances for cleaners: winning a better roster with new jobs at Morden depot, and stopping the use of fingerprinting machines for cleaners to book on and off.

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Often we are told that borders ‘protect public services for British people’. But we are told that by the same government which cuts public services to the bone and drains public money off into the pockets of private sub-contractors! Borders are a tool to ease capitalists exploitation, not to benefit us. The labour movement should pour its energy into fighting for better public services, not tougher borders.

As immigration controls threaten our members with detention or deportation, and as the new points-based system pushes immigration enforcement into the workplace, the labour movement needs to fight the government’s immigration policy. The unions will never be able to fight for all members while some are denied the right to live here.

Finsbury Park branch RMT has called a conference, ‘Under Attack from Immigration Controls : Trade Unions and Communities Fight Back’ for 29th March. The conference will have workshops where trade unionists can explore how we can use our collective strength, which is the only way of defending members attacked for their immigration status.

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