Hands Off My Workmate

Hands Off My Workmate


Written by: Frances Webber

At a conference in London last week, a campaign was launched to organise for the rights of migrant workers.

The Hands Off My Workmate conference was organised following a high profile raid at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in June 2009 when nine cleaners were detained by immigration officers in full riot gear after being called to an early morning meeting with the cleaning contractor ISS. Many of those detained have since been forcibly removed from the UK. As a result of the raid over fifty students occupied the SOAS director’s office for three days. (Read an IRR news story: ‘SOAS occupied after cleaners detained and forcibly removed’).

The Hands Off My Workmate campaign is organising for the rights of migrant workers who ‘are an integral part of society: often essential in elderly care, in cleaning of offices, public transport, schools and hospitals and food production,’ people who ‘are coming under attack from the media and politicians’. It is calling for the ‘broadest possible unity in opposing immigration raids in workplaces and in fighting for the right of all living here to work and to have the necessary documentation to live without fear.’ This broad based coalition is supported by members from unions (UCW, UCU, RMT, SOAS UNISON, SOAS UCU, SOAS SU) as well as MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, Camden Trades Council and the Bloomsbury Living Wage Campaign.

Via a video-link up the conference heard from a UNISON member who was deported to Bogota (Colombia) forty-eight hours after the raid at SOAS with seventy-five pence in her pocket and dumped hundreds of miles from her home town. Jean Lambert, a Green MEP, called for ‘human dignity’ in her speech and, at a workshop on legal and union strategies to defend migrant workers, Sandy Nicholl of SOAS UNISON spoke of his concerns of a ‘two tier workforce, the undocumented and citizens’. He warned that the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) was using employers to extend its policing role over migrants.

The campaign believes that:

  • The introduction of immigration checks and immigration raids in the workplace is divisive and damaging to union organisation and is designed to create pressure on migrant workers not to organise or to take part in action.
  • Companies which operate outsourced services, such as cleaning, wish to operate in a non union, low wage environment and are using immigration checks as a weapon to drive down pay and conditions. If they succeed in lowering conditions for one part of the workforce-then all are damaged.
  • An injury to one is an injury to all. Workers of all countries of origin require unity to fight for secure jobs, decent wages and safe working conditions and immigration checks at work simply divide and weaken unions.
  • Groups like the BNP have grown on the back of a climate of fear about migration generated by politicians seeking to lay the blame for economic crisis at the door of working people from other countries.
  • The students and staff of SOAS who launched immediate protests, including a student occupation, to win protection for their migrant workmates/students are to be congratulated for forcing their management to request the immediate issue of papers to the cleaners held in detention, the return of those detained and to acknowledge the lecturers’ UCU policy of non co-operation with immigration controls as well as agreeing to reconsider the outsourcing of cleaning contracts.
  • Immigration raids in the workplace risk the health and safety of union members by bringing the potential for violence into the workplace through the entry of riot-style squads hunting down workers and also create stress for all staff who witness such raids or who have colleagues and friends detained in them.
  • Employers do not need to, and should not, facilitate such raids.

Hands Off My Workmate plans to initially provide briefings and legal materials for campaigners and migrant workers and support for immediate protests following immigration raids. Campaigners and trades unionists can download a model motion in support of the campaign at the link below. The Hands Off My Workmate campaign can be contacted by emailing: handsoffmyworkmate@yahoo.co.uk or log on to the Hands Off My Workmate website.

The next organising meeting for the Hands Off My Workmate campaign takes place on 10 November 2009 at SOAS, at 6pm.

Related links

Read an IRR news story: ‘SOAS occupied after cleaners detained and forcibly removed’

Hands Off My Workmate website

Hands Off My Workmate model motion for trade union branches

[1]See IRR News, 20 May 2009, 'Lords refuse to hear Travellers' appeal, whilst UN pledges support'

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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