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How Immigrants Are Leading the Fight for British Workers' Rights and Pay

Some of the defining workers' struggles of recent times have been fought by migrants.

by Simon Childs
Dec 2 2016, 5:00pm

"Management tried to make a saving by cutting the staff welfare budget. They decided to cut our coffees. We took a really small issue, which pissed a lot of Italian people off—because, y'know, Italians really love their coffee—and managed to get better staff food. I'm talking like smoked salmon for breakfast. Stuff that our guests could eat! And then on top of that we managed to change the shoe policy. People were working up to 15 hours a day, running around. There had been instances where our feet had been bleeding. We had to wear trainers. Now we get to choose the shoes that we have to wear. And generally the atmosphere at work is brilliant—managers have to be nice to us."

As a wave of post-Brexit migrant-hate washes over us like a burst sewer, the tale of the bloody-socked Italians whose savage caffeine withdrawal symptoms meant they wouldn't take any shit should become a parable. We could all do with some smoked salmon in these times.

It was told by a hospitality worker, who preferred to remain anonymous, on Saturday at a conference in Willesden to mark 40 years since the Grunwick dispute. That was when East African Asian women working in film-processing factories went on strike for two years between 1976 and 1978 following a dispute over union recognition. The "strikers in saris" were joined by thousands of trade unionists, who filled the small residential streets of northwest London to join mass pickets and fight with the police. This made a change compared to other disputes by black and Asian workers in the 1970s, which were met with indifference or even hostility from unions.

It's something that needs to be remembered today, with racism on the rise and the Conservative Party and UKIP warning that immigrants are after your job. A racist brand of old Toryism is back, but it's not just those nasty old Tories being nasty old Tories that we should worry about.

Tuesday's Times carried an interview with Labour MP Dan Jarvis that takes place in a pie and mash shop in his Essex constituency—I guess we're supposed to infer that he is an ordinary hardworking family man who doesn't like foreign muck like korma and kebabs. "It is clear to me that the UKIP fox is in the Labour henhouse," he said, "and we have got to make a decision about what we want to do about that fox."

On Wednesday, after Paul Nuttall became UKIP leader, Labour's Frank Field warned that many voters will see him as a man "on the right page at the right time"—a "gamechanger" who could attack Labour's northern heartlands. And at a meeting of Progress this week—a grouping on the right of the Labour Party—Stephen Kinnock MP said, "We must move away from multiculturalism and towards assimilation. We must stand for one group: the British people."

"It's about culture, identity, and family and so on," said Field.

To be kind, the racist right is leading the conversation. To be blunt, Labour's centrists are sounding increasingly racist themselves. Culture. Identity. The British people.

Even the Labour left is questioning its support for free movement. Clive Lewis MP—much loved by Corbynistas—recently said: "We have to acknowledge that free movement of labor hasn't worked for a lot of people." That echoed a recent speech by TUC leader Len McCluskey, who said, "We can no longer sit like the three wise monkeys, seeing no problem, hearing no problem, and speaking of no problem."

Hotel workers in London protesting. Photo by Simon Childs

To be clear, the "problem" he was talking about was "working people's concerns" about immigration, rather than immigration per se—but those guys are coming at the conversation all wrong. Because of all the bullshit spoken in 2016, some of the worst has to be the idea that immigrants are fucking over British workers. As anyone who has been keeping an eye on bouts of workers vs. dickhead bosses will know: Immigrants are on the front line in the Battle of British Work.

Take probably the highest-profile strike of the year after the Junior Doctors—the Deliveroo strike. Riders were protesting an attempt to put them on £3.75 [$4.75] per delivery, rather than a guaranteed hourly pay rate. Their picket of the company HQ was characterized by its non-whiteness and diversity of accents. Impromptu meetings had to be translated to take account of people from different countries. Within a week, strikers had won concessions from their managers, sending shock waves through the "gig economy".

Then there are the hotel workers who have been protesting against their appalling conditions. The union Unite's hotel workers' branch has many members who would probably take evening classes in English if they could afford it and weren't exhausted from overwork.

And as far as examples to capture the public imagination go, a single mom from Ecuador taking on one of Britain's richest pariahs isn't a bad one. That's the position that Susanna Benavides finds herself in, squaring up to Sir Philip "BHS destroyer" Green. She used to be a cleaner at Topshop via its contractor Britannia Service Group, but got the sack. Her trade union, United Voices of the World (UVW), is claiming that she was sacked for her campaigning activities in favor of a living wage. She told the Grunwick conference that "we had contracts that didn't reflect our working reality," and so she helped organize her colleagues to fight for "dignity." VICE understands that UVW is planning to take Britannia to an employment tribunal.

When I asked Topshop to comment, a spokesperson said, "All cleaners in Topshop stores are employed by Britannia Services Group and not by Topshop. Topshop is unaware of and unable to comment on any legal proceedings brought by Britannia's employees. Topshop requires all of its suppliers to pay legally compliant wages. Topshop values and appreciates all staff working for the Topshop business."

A spokesperson from Britannia told me, "No one has been dismissed for any union activity. One individual was dismissed due to contravening her contract of employment... We have other members of UVW working in that store who have been there for many years and are still in that store." The spokesperson also pointed out that they pay more than the National Living Wage (as distinct from the London Living Wage that the Living Wage Foundation campaigns for).

Back at the Grunwick conference, Susanna told the audience, "I'm not going to give up the fight, and I'm going to carry on." She was applauded in two waves. The first: people who speak Spanish. The second: people who don't and had to wait for Petros Elia, who was translating to the room. Petros is the general secretary of UVW, which organizes almost exclusively among migrant workers. I caught up with him on the phone after the meeting, and he said the case shows "how delicate the labor market is," because thanks to Susanna, "one of the largest retail empires in the world is shaking in its boots."

"I think the most impressive, inspiring, and hard fought campaigns have been those led by migrant workers," he continued. To make his point, he listed all of the recent workers' struggles he could think of that have been led by—or largely made up of—migrants, off the top of his head. Let's take a deep breath, because here they all are: SOAS, Senate House, Birkbeck, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Kings College London, St George's University, the Barbican, Sotheby's auction house, Withers LLP, 100 Wood Street, LSE, John Lewis, and Topshop.

"Quite a healthy list," he said.

That's off the top of one guy's head, and mostly carried out by two small, independent unions, the UVW and the IWGB. There are many more examples—the strike by impoverished NHS cleaning workers with the GMB union working for mega corporation Aramark, for instance.

Some of them could reverberate not only by vital inspiration, but precedent in employment law. In October, Uber drivers—and I think I've had an Uber driver with a British accent exactly once—with the GMB union won a court case to be recognized as workers with workers' rights, rather than thousands and thousands of individual entrepreneurs trying to make good.

Nigel Mackay from the employment law team at Leigh Day solicitors, which represented the drivers, explained the significance of the case: "Basically, what it means is that any company that's mislabelling workers as self-employed contractors probably won't be able to get away it. Often migrants are scapegoated for that, but companies are often acting outside of the law in order to keep down wages." So one in the eye for the algorithmic overlords finding innovative new ways to fuck people over. "You can argue that what they're doing is helping non-migrant workers. They're taking on these struggles and these are rights that everyone is entitled to," said Nigel.

As watching the VICE film Undercover Migrant will make you aware of, there are a lot of bosses rubbing their hands at the prospect of getting someone to do work paid in chicken (literally). The problem isn't totally illusory. Olivier Vardakoulias, a senior economist with the New Economics Foundation, told me that because of immigration, "In the short-term, you may have some pressure on wages in particular professions. If you have a lot of inflow of migrants into particular professions, that will put some pressure on wages."

But, he said, "We're talking about really small numbers... Down the line, in the medium-term, what you have is more people and more jobs in the economy as a whole." He said the real problems are de-industrialization, low productivity, and a focus on jobs that don't deliver good wages.

That being the case, why is the British left not harping on about those things? Why is it wasting time performing mental gymnastics about their sort of support, sort of jettisoning of people who might want to come here to make a better life for themselves?

The impact of migrants on wages has been "completely overblown," said Vardakoulias. He pointed out that the actual threat to wages comes from the demise of trade unions. Even the IMF, not renowned for wearing Che Guevara T-shirts around the office or having Crass tattoos, have published papers saying saying pretty much that.


Related: Watch 'Undercover Migrant,' our documentary about the lives of London's immigrants


The Grunwick strike was great for race relations in the UK. Local Irish people brought tea and snacks to the pickets, and black and white people braved police batons together. But the dispute ended in failure. The strikers demands were not met, union support waned, and they ended their action two years after it started. Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the strike, attributed this partly to the established trade unions. Concrete support from them was "like honey on the elbow," she said. "You can smell it, you can see it, but you can never taste it."

Writing at the time of the Grunwick dispute, Ambalavaner Sivanandan—the director of the Institute of Race Relations—questioned why the unions were supporting Asian workers when they had failed to do so previously. He concluded that they were worried that rowdy Asian workers left outside traditional trade unions could actually win wage increases. This could "blow a hole, however small, in the Social Contract." The Social Contract was an agreement between the Labour government and the unions designed to control inflation: In return for some union-friendly laws, they wouldn't ask for big pay rises. The Asian workers needed to be brought into line with the Social Contract. To do that, "it is necessary to unionize the Asian strikers. To unionize a black workforce, it is first necessary to take a stand against racial discrimination." It was, said Sivanandan, "not a 'change of heart,' but a change of tactics—to ordain, legitimize, and continue the joint strategies of the state and union leaders against the working class—through the Social Contract."

Today, the context is different, but the opportunism is the same. The labor movement, or at least some of its leadership, is still prevaricating on the question for expediency's sake. It's enough to make you wonder if migrants should actually hope for support from union leaders wedded to a Labour Party full of Frank Fields and Dan Jarvises. (To give them their due, Labour's Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott has angrily rejected Dan Jarvis's suggestions.)

If "the problem" the left has to face up to is the concerns of working people about immigration, a good start would be to stop talking about migrants like they're some sort of inert gas that capitalists pump into the economy to asphyxiate workers' rights. Migrants are, in fact, human beings who are just as capable as anyone else as getting pissed off at bad pay and crappy conditions and fighting to change them. While the TUC leadership seems capable mainly of organizing symbolic marches, and Labour MPs give navel-gazing speeches about how to placate racists, migrants are fighting the battles that are defining the British workplace.

Migrants are not a threat to British workers, but they are a threat to the government. They're also showing British workers' useless representatives up. They don't deserve to be sold out by the left. If anything, an ungrateful left doesn't deserve immigrants.

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