Defending migrant workers - Hands off my workmate!

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Migrant workers are no longer a marginal part of the workforce in Britain or simply a "reserve army of labour".

Migrants now hold more than one in 12 jobs in Britain - more than double the rate of 1997. They are an integral part of the British economy, albeit in many cases part of the "flexible labour market". They can be shifted between workplaces undermining decent working conditions, unless union activists make a conscious effort to integrate them into our ranks.

A recent conference in London launched the Hands Off My Workmate initiative, which grew out of the occupation and resistance undertaken by students and staff in response to the immigration raid on cleaners at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) last June.

There has been a growing number of campaigns for a living wage and for improved conditions for migrant workers in Britain. These campaigns can make a real difference to people's lives and strengthen our unions in the process. However, strict immigration laws and the conditions of war, poverty and recession that make people migrate in the first place mean that migrant workers are extremely vulnerable.

Private contractors take advantage of this to try to break union organisation where it has previously exerted its strength. They conduct selective paper checks which target union activists, report workers to the Home Office and organise workplace raids.

Integrating migrant workers into our union branches and our struggles is the most effective way to win decent jobs for all. Simple acts like arranging English classes and translation for migrant worker members can help give them a voice and enable their full participation in union activities.

The trade union movement in Britain has a good track record of organising migrants alongside other workers compared to other European countries. Unions have set up migrant worker projects and Justice for Cleaners campaigns, and have produced recruitment materials and information on workplace rights in many different languages. But this year's strikes demanding "British jobs for British workers" show the problems we still have to overcome.

Also, some union bodies and officials, particularly at the regional or national level, tend to avoid getting involved in more explicitly political issues such as anti-deportation campaigns.

Efforts like the successful Living Wage Campaigns at London colleges Birkbeck and Soas, and the campaign to defend victimised UCL cleaner Juan Carlos Piedra, have united directly employed and outsourced staff, made the contracted staff more visible, and won concrete victories.

But there is a limit to which this activity can be effective without addressing the issue of immigration law and the debate over amnesty and conditional citizenship for undocumented workers.

The Strangers into Citizens campaign supports the "earned amnesty" approach in which undocumented workers apply for regularisation which is conditional on six years' residence, a good standard of English, employer and community references, and a clean criminal record. They argue that this pragmatic approach would win regularisation for approximately 400,000 people, and that even Tory politicians are open to considering this type of limited amnesty.

But very few migrant workers would be able to achieve the strict conditions required for such an "earned" amnesty. Irregular workers have to work such long hours to support themselves in low-paid jobs that they often cannot find time to study English. Also, many will by definition have worked or travelled with false papers and would find it difficult to avoid a criminal record. An unconditional amnesty would benefit all such workers.

We want to see Hands Off My Workmate develop into a far-reaching campaign that can put a stop to the widespread bullying and intimidation that irregular workers experience and win an unconditional amnesty for all. We need to organise the broadest possible forces if we want to win. With the government's new points-based immigration system, migrants face ever tougher restrictions. But resistance is growing, and winning an amnesty is possible.

Why don't you consider holding a Hands Off event in your college or workplace?


Julia Rapkin is International Officer for Birkbeck Unison (pc). For more information see the Hands Off My Workmate website.