A public meeting on 10 December 2007 was part of the build-up to the No One is Illegal Trade Union conference against immigration controls.
Javez Lam from the GMB, who has supported Chinese families following the Morcambe Bay cockle pickers disaster, spoke about organising the Chinese workers in Soho. He said that many migrants come to this country focused on finding a wage and a place to live. He noted with regret that immigration is often not the first thing on their minds, and that this pragmatic approach has left the political debate about immigration in the hands of the racists and the government.
The raids in Soho last October saw immigration officials burst into Soho, arresting 49 Chinese people in one day. Of those, four have been freed, 10 were immediately removed and the rest are still in detention. In response to the raids, the Chinese community invited the head of South East immigration to Soho to explain himself. From 3-5pm, every shop was closed as over 2000 workers went on strike and filled the streets, waving placards to greet the immigration officials, to show the strength of feeling within the community.
Following appeals from Chinese employers that the immigration system was too complex for them to police, the immigration service is now providing training on how to check papers. In the first training session, workers organised to ask awkward questions that would expose the system. By the end, the immigration official was agreeing with them that the system could not be defended and he told them that the Chinese community should organise to change the laws! Somone from No One Is Illegal asked Jai whether this training colludes with the system of immigration controls, but Jai was clear that the workers are using this as an opportunity for resistance. While the training continues, there will be no more raids, and if the training exposes the system as unworkable, maybe there will be no more raids at all.
In the second half of the meeting, Javier Ruiz from the T&G’s Justice for Cleaners campaign spoke about the points-based migration system that will come into effect in March. The new law will sort workers into categories ranging from high-skilled to to the Tier 3 lower skilled workers. Employers will have to prove that they have tried to find cheap labour from the native labour pool before importing foreign labour. They will have to register with the government and prove that they are good importers and exporters of migrants before being allowed to police the status of their workers themselves. Each worker from outside the European Union will need a certificate of sponsorship from an employer to enter the country. Once here, there will be measures to make sure that people go back again, such as partly paying workers in their country of origin, or holding bonds for them in their own country.
The importance of the law is that it places responsibility for policing immigration in the hands of the employers. The Trade Unions are in a key place to fight this system as part of their fight against their bosses. The meeting’s discussion, however, highlighted that the current union movement is not fit to fight these measures. The laws will come into effect on March 1st. It would be wonderful to think that unions accross the country could go on strike to defeat these laws. But the anti-union laws, the lack of understanding about these issues amongst rank and file workers, the reluctance to take any kind of militant action from the unions’ leaderships.... leads to a depressing picture. But that is why it is important to promote the Trade Unions Against Immigration Controls conference as much as possible amongst rank and file workers. The conference will hopefully not just be a one-off event, but part of a process of organising workers together for this important fight.