The second trade union and communities conference against immigration controls (London, 29 March) brought 150-200 activists together to organise a coordinated national campaign. It linked the politics of individual anti-deportation campaigns to the fight for freedom of movement for all.
A speaker in the opening session, a cleaner activist from the living wage campaign at conference venue SOAS, introduced himself, saying “I am illegal. And because I am illegal, I am exploited”. He saw his fight for immigration status as flowing from the economic instability he fled in Ecuador.
John McDonnell MP proposed we follow up by going around the country, making arguments for solidarity — a road show for trade unionists. In one electrifying moment, he said that even the government must know that the days of erecting barriers between people are numbered and the only rational thing we can do is fight for a world without borders.
Workshops focused on organising practical outcomes. Jabez Lam talked about the raids by immigration officials in China Town in October 2007, repetitions of which have been frustration by joint worker-employer action. The conference pledged to support a planned demonstration of Chinese, Bengali and workers from other communities in London on 21 April. This could be the first mass mobilisation since new immigration laws gave increased responsibility to employers to check immigration status, have prompted a crack-down on illegal workers.
The session also discussed supporting London Underground cleaners who are being driven away from work by checks on national insurance numbers.
Public sector workers came up with ideas for future action to ensure the right to services for everyone.
In a practical session on “resisting deportations”, Alphonsus Okafor-Mefor, a Nigerian activist, and Flores Sukula and Beatrice Ketcha Guessie, drew on their experiences of building successful anti-deportation campaigns.
The way that immigration controls play into the hands of the bosses by creating “illegal”, more easily-exploitable workers, was drawn out in the session on migrant worker organising. All agreed that the first thing is to recruit migrant workers into unions. We debated whether we should defend union members who are on the wrong side of immigration legislation by defying this legislation. This seems to be an ambitious but necessary strategy, if we are not going to let employer crack-downs drive migrant worker organising out of existence. A strong call was for co-ordination across the rank and file of our unions, to take action and tackle the prevalent anti-immigrant racism.
The closing session emphasised the need put the day’s discussions into practice. We face a government so committed to anti-immigrant policy that they deported 35 people to Iraq in the same week as the conference, and a capitalist class willing to use these laws when it suites them to curb worker organisation, or to lay off workers according to the economic climate. We are keen to set up a permanent campaign. The first follow-up meeting — open to all — will be on 15 April.