Ian Allinson, the only candidate for Unite General Secretary arguing for workers’ rights to move freely and be treated equally, urges members to join Saturday’s march against racism.
Today we saw Theresa May’s government defeat Lords amendments intended to protect the rights of EU migrants living in the UK. The Tories are treating migrant workers like hostages, held to ransom for its trade negotiations.
Every trade unionist should be joining Saturday’s March Against Racism in London, Glasgow and Cardiff, which is supported by the TUC.
The impromptu protests around Trump’s inauguration were inspiring. They showed the potential for a powerful movement against racism, sexism and bigotry – and blew out of the water the idea that young people are apathetic. We need to ensure that energy is sustained and organised. Saturday’s demonstration can contribute to that process – as long as it is a springboard to further action rather than a letting-off of steam.
The question of workers’ rights to move freely and be treated equally is not going away. While the two establishment candidates in the Unite General Secretary election fudge and backslide on it, I have made it an important theme of my campaign.
The elements of the Tory right who backed Brexit see it as an opportunity to attack workers’ rights and cut regulation. We must be ready to defend our rights against this onslaught. The most immediate and pressing threat is to members who don’t have British citizenship.
It is good that Unite’s Brexit Check web site says that “Unite will continue to defend EU nationals and other migrant workers who live and work in the UK. We support their right to remain.” But it also regurgitates McCluskey’s dangerous nonsense “any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad should only be able to do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement or by sectoral collective bargaining”. At best, this is vague and meaningless. What does “recruit labour abroad” mean? That the recruit must have been in the UK when they signed up? For how long?
The consequences of this stance are likely to be worse than confusion. The implication is that while workers already here should have the right to remain, any worker hired from abroad in future, into a job without collective bargaining, shouldn’t have been. Will the racists in your workplace care what date someone was hired? How will this stance look to a migrant worker hired in a year or two’s time? It is a recipe for division at a time we need unity.
The idea that banning workers from abroad from jobs without union recognition (the vast majority) would act as some kind of safeguard for jobs and conditions is just plain wrong. People have always moved, and we always will. And most of us have to work to live. Preventing people working legally does not mean we don’t work, it means we are forced to work without any legal protection, and are even more vulnerable to exploitation. It will accelerate the race to the bottom and cause more tragedies like the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers.
If we give ground to the idea that access to jobs should be restricted based on nationality, it’s easy to imagine where the Tories would go with this. They want to cut immigration, but want to protect their business friends’ access to workers. There is already talk of only allowing migrants in if they work in certain jobs or industries. This is the bad employer’s dream and the worker’s nightmare. The threat of losing your job is bad enough. If the consequence is also deportation you are much more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, as we have already seen with some domestic workers.
Migrants’ rights are workers’ rights. We cannot defend workers’ rights by taking away migrants’ rights.
The only way to consistently promote workers’ interests is to champion our right to go where we please and be treated equally wherever we go. It is sad that the other candidates in this election have yet to join me in doing so.
These issues have serious human consequences, including for Unite members. Below is a moving report I’ve been sent from one workplace.
I’m a Unite member, working in a community organisation in North East London. In the last year several people at my work have had dealings with the immigration authorities. I wanted to let people know about the kind of thing that happens in these situations – because, to be honest, I didn’t know much about it. I never believed claims that migrants had it easy – for example, that they got given council houses. But I didn’t know just how badly migrants were treated, even though I work alongside these people every day.
First, a colleague from Eastern Europe, who had lived and worked here for many years, made a successful application to become a UK citizen. It cost her a total of over £1,200. She had to complete a form including details of every time she had entered and left the UK, all the work she had done and details from two referees. The fee for the application was over £1,000 – it’s more now. She needed to register biometric information, which cost £19.20. She needed to pass an English test, which cost £150, and she needed to pass the multiple-choice Life in the UK test, which asks questions most British people would find it hard to answer (how many member states does the Commonwealth have? what percentage of the UK population lives in Wales?) That cost another £50.
And then, to actually become a UK citizen, you go to a citizenship ceremony – if you want to take more than two people along, there’s a charge for that too. The whole procedure is so complex that you may want to pay for someone from the local council to check you’ve completed the forms correctly – that’s usually another £50 or so, sometimes over £100, and that’s just to check the form, not for advice about migration law.
But all this is straightforward, compared with the experience of a second colleague. She and her husband have lived in the UK for sixteen years – he has worked the whole time, and now she is working. At one point, he was told that he needed to sign on regularly with the authorities, but he occasionally wasn’t able to do this because of illness. A year ago, they were told that she could stay in Britain, but he couldn’t. He left the UK, and is now applying to return, so he can be reunited with his wife – his application has just been refused. They have been told that their wedding doesn’t count for immigration purposes, because it was a religious, Muslim one – so they had a civil ceremony as well. They have also been told that they might not stay together because they don’t have children – despite the fact that they have been together for 20 years.
They are continuing to lodge appeals, and every stage of the process costs money. For example, before my colleague’s husband left the UK, they needed to get legal advice from a barrister – that cost £2,000 up front. For her husband’s recent, failed, visa application she had to pay a surveyor £150 to confirm that there was enough room for him in their house. That confirmation is only valid for three months, so if she reapplies in future she’ll have to find another £150 each time. If he had got a visa, he would have had to pay £600 to use the NHS – even if he was working and paying for the NHS out of his taxes like the rest of us.
Those of us who were born here may not know that this is what some of our workmates are going through. These are people who contribute to our society and work alongside us, being made to jump through bureaucratic hoops and pay huge sums to live here. Sometimes they have to pay thousands simply to get their rights. It’s a trade union issue. It’s divisive and shameful, and it should end.
Notes to editors:
Ian Allinson is a workplace activist at Fujitsu in Manchester who previously served ten years on the union Executive. Ian comfortably secured the nominations to be a candidate in the Unite General Secretary election. The other candidates in the election are Len McCluskey, the current General Secretary, and Gerard Coyne, Regional Secretary for the West Midlands.
Voting takes place 27 March – 19 April.
Ian is available for interview. For more information, call 07985 438 553 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photographs are available at www.ian4unite.org/resources/
Ian has recently been on strike at his workplace. Information about the Fujitsu dispute is here: https://ouruniontest.wordpress.com/fujitsu-national-dispute/.