What Happened at Yesterday's Protest Against the Byron Immigration Raids

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What Happened at Yesterday's Protest Against the Byron Immigration Raids

Last month, burger chain Byron called foreign staff members at its London branches to a supposed training meeting, only to hand them over to Border Force officials. We spoke to those protesting their actions outside the Holborn branch.

Hundreds of people are gathered outside the Holborn branch of nationwide burger chain Byron. A sea of umbrellas and placards sprawls across more than half the road as policemen line the crowd, who are here to protest the recent actions of the private equity-owned company.

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Demonstrators at the Byron immigration raid protest last night outside the chain's Holborn branch in London. All photos by the author.

On July 4, Byron management summoned kitchen staff to supposed training meetings across 12 of their London locations. When the staff arrived, Border Force officials were waiting to greet them, rounding them up into vans before they'd had a chance to inform their families or gather their belongings. It has since been reported that most of those arrested, including workers from Albania, Brazil, Egypt, and Nepal, have already been deported.

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Since reports emerged of the controversial incident, Byron has come under attack. On Friday night, activists released thousands of live cockroaches and locusts into the chain's Holborn and Shaftesbury Avenue locations. Today's protest, attended by demonstrators from groups including United Voices of the World Union and Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants, is the latest stand.

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The mood is indignant. Chants of "How d'you like your burger? Without deportation!" and "Here to stay! Here to fight! Migrant workers have a right!" ring out despite the grey August rain.

Carlitos, a protester from Colombia, tells me that the incident shows that Byron "don't see us as humans, they just see us as pound signs." Like many others, he feels that the company exploited workers for as long as they were able, before setting up the sting with Border Force officials, with whom the company says they "co-operated fully."

Lola, a protestor from France.

Another protester, Lola, 25, from France, believes that Byron could have dealt with the matter differently.

"If they wanted to implement the law, they could have told their workers who they knew were undocumented the procedure that would happen if they got caught," she says. "Handing them to the police when they know they have to be put in detention centres is just disgusting. It's inhuman."

Peter, a 48-year-old Londoner also protesting today, agrees.

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"They should embrace all the people that are here in London, and work with them and try and get them residency," he says.

Byron's actions are thought to be the result of toughening immigration laws in the UK. The recently introduced Immigration Act 2016, overseen by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary, increased sanctions on employers hiring illegal non-EU staff, raising jail times and implementing even heavier fines for those who did not comply.

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Many at today's Byron protest say these tougher laws are creating a climate of exclusionism in the UK.

"There's a lot of xenophobia right now in the UK, which has led to an increase in these kinds of instances of raids and deportations," protester Halimo tells me.

Though the laws outlined in the new Immigration Act target large corporations, many say that it is the foreign workers who bear the brunt.

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"It's obviously illegal to hire people without papers but it's not actually businesses that are being made to pay for that," says Ida, a protester from Norway. "What seems likely is that Byron struck a deal with the Home Office and they're not gonna have to pay their fines if they hand over their staff, so it's totally unfair."

Byron has also come under fire on social media. The chain's several unofficial Facebook pages are peppered with furious comments, including one from user Nicholas Ryan, who wrote: "I hated their shitty, overpriced burgers and soggy chips even before I found out they had decided round up their employees and hand them over to the Fascists who now run our country. Shame on you Byron. If this is how they treat their employees, imagine the contempt they treat their customers with when they aren't looking [sic]."

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Another Facebook user, Alfie AC asked: "Wasn't Byron's job to check that their documents were right?" while Oscar Carreras denounced their "disgusting burgers and disgusting company policies [sic]."

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On Twitter, #Boycott Byron has gained traction, while the official Byron account tweeted a response to the Home Office investigation, noting that it was "unaware that any of our workers were in possession of counterfeit documentation until the Home Office brought it to our attention" and that Byron as an employer "has always been fully compliant with immigration and asylum law in its employment practices."

Protestor Halimo holds her placard.

When approached by MUNCHIES, Byron management declined to comment, instead directing to an official statement, in which the company calls itself "proud of the diversity of [its] restaurant teams, built around people of all backgrounds and all walks of life."