"Snitches get pickets" read one homemade sign in the drizzle. It was as good a three-word summary as you could hope for of the latest terrible chapter in the history of rainy fascism island.
Filling the pavement and most of a busy London arterial road in the middle of rush hour, several hundred people turned up outside Byron's Holborn restaurant on Monday to protest against the company's involvement in an immigration sting that led to the immediate arrest and deportation of a substantial number of their own employees—apparently on the instruction of the Home Office.
On July 4, immigration raids at numerous Byron premises led to scores of arrests, and 35 members of staff were deported back to countries including Brazil, Nepal, Egypt, and Albania, with the "full co-operation" of the gourmet burger chain, according to the Home Office. It was to be a fortnight before the Spanish-language newspaper El Ibérico broke the story, sparking a huge public outcry during the last week. According to the paper, another 150 members of staff are now in hiding.
After skirmishes over the weekend, the first substantial #BoycottByron protest achieved one picketing victory before it even began—the Holborn branch was shut down hours beforehand (a sign cited, with impressive vagueness, "technical reasons"). Holding signs reading "No human is illegal" and "Bun down Babyron," protesters braved the depressing summer weather to chant catchy slogans like "How do you like your burgers? Without deportations" and listen to (anonymous) testimonies from Byron employees and the numerous groups that had called the demonstration.
Alex from Dissidents wasted no time in addressing some of those who had defended the burger chain as an innocent party, with no choice but to follow Home Office rules: "I just want to speak to the people who have been saying, 'But it's the law.' It's quite simple, really: The law doesn't say, 'Rally your workers in the building, under the guise of fake training, lock the doors, and call immigration enforcement,'" she said, to the loudest cheers of the day.
"The other thing is when people say, 'But it's the law,' it's important to remember that some laws need to be changed—and the Immigration Act needs to be changed. The Immigration Act was put in place when Theresa May decided that they needed to create what she called a 'hostile environment' for so-called illegal migrants. That hostile environment means that it's almost impossible for people to work, it's almost impossible for people to rent, to go to the doctors, and just live a decent, dignified life—and that's something we need to talk about: It might be legal, what happened at Byron, but it doesn't make it right."
One Byron waiter who witnessed the raids on kitchen staff in her restaurant was left in tears. She arrived at work halfway through the sting, set up by bosses as a bogus morning meeting: "I realized what was actually happening after about ten minutes of being there and got really upset and was told by the area manager to start opening the restaurant. I tried but was having, I think, a mild panic attack," she said, emphasizing how hard her deported colleagues had worked, many of them doing over 50-hour weeks for the minimum wage, in some cases for several years.
"I was so appalled that the area manager, directors, and all those at head office would do this to these guys, all to avoid a fine because they didn't have the proper procedures in place to check their ID in the first place," she said. "They were fed to the lions."
For 22-year-old legal-aid caseworker Larry, the Byron raids were the tip of an iceberg we are just beginning to realize is, in fact, an iceberg. "I just feel it's totally outrageous—the whole 'hostile environment' project is just encouraging fear and aggression and racism," he said. "It's so clear in the results of the referendum and the aftermath of that. This is just one example, and we're all really angry about it, but given the direction Theresa May wants to go in—immigration raids in employment, through landlords—this kind of stuff is going to become more frequent, and it's terrifying to think it might become normalized."
A spokesperson for the organizers of the protest emphasized the "horrifying impact" of the raids on families left behind, adding: "There is no evidence whatsoever to prove that this government's 'hostile environment' is achieving its purpose (to limit migration to this country), but instead it's forcing already vulnerable migrant communities into further exploitation at the hands of employers, landlords, and so on."
Byron's apparent cynicism seems to have caught the public's attention, but what should Byron have done in the circumstances? According to the spokesperson: "They should support their workers with insecure immigration status, helping them to apply to regularize their status—they have a duty to do this as they reap so much profit from these vulnerable, exploited workers."
One week after the raids took place, a little-noticed story ran in the business press pointing to the current health and future expansion of the company: Byron has just secured an approximately $16 million fund, provided jointly by Santander and RBS, to expand from the 65 restaurants it currently has nationally to 100, over the next three years. In a sense, the immigration uproar has come at the worst possible time for the company.
Hosting a noisy, disruptive protest—not to mention the massed ranks of press, radio, and TV—in a prime central London location, outside a closed restaurant, is pretty terrible PR, perhaps especially so for a business that trades on an aesthetic of carefully modeled ruin-porn authento-hipsterism. And the scrutiny may intensify. Yesterday, CorporateWatch published research accusing Byron's owners of "siphoning millions of pounds offshore"; investment fund Hutton Collins bought the chain for about $130 million in 2013 and is taking advantage of a new scheme "helping the owners move their earnings from the burger chain into tax havens."
Defenders of Byron will continue to argue that the company was "just obeying the law," but they will struggle to convince everyone that the situation is as simple as all that.
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