During lockdown, it has been made clear that we depend on specific workers to keep our nation afloat. Our NHS staff, teachers, social workers, food chain workers, transport staff, postal workers, and more, are now celebrated by those on both sides of the political spectrum for their dedication and service to our country.
Despite this, home secretary Priti Patel refused to soften her hard approach to post-Brexit immigration, with her Immigration Bill being voted through the House of Commons. Patel took to Twitter to claim that this Bill “will ensure people can come to our country based on what they have to offer, not where they come from”, reasserting her belief that individuals should be judged solely on the vague notion of “skill”. This means that the points-based system will still be introduced, with points being awarded to applicants who meet a specific criteria, such as holding certain qualifications, the ability to speak English to a certain standard, and meeting a £25,600 salary threshold.
As a black person, seeing on the news that you are four times more likely to die from Covid-19, while having family members who are essential workers, leaves you with a constant feeling of anxiety that haunts you on a daily basis.
The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the deeply problematic nature of defining individuals on their economic value. A government who, in February, pejoratively labelled some as “unskilled”, is now praising the efforts of these same people, deeming them to be “essential workers” within society. Recent months have shown that the conceptualisations surrounding “skilled” and “unskilled” labour say little about the nature of the work itself but serve to naturalise our society’s established divides along racial, class and gendered lines. The act of reducing people to their economic output, while labelling certain people as “unskilled”, strips people of their humanity and legitimises their exclusion from society. For Patel to continue with the passing of this Bill, especially in these times, is not only tone deaf, but cruel.
Last week’s news showed that the government refuses to take any form of accountability. Not only does Dominic Cummings see himself and his family as an exception to the lockdown measures that he devised for the country, Patel’s Immigration Bill also absolves the UK Government from addressing the now prevalent elephant in the room: most of our “essential workers” are engaged in some of the lowest paid work and poorest maintained working conditions. By shifting the responsibility onto these people to obtain higher wages through an arbitrary points-based system, instead of challenging those who imposed the unfair wages in the first place, the government is essentially sending the message that, in order to be allowed into this country, workers need to, as the famous Paris Hilton t-shirt says: “Stop being poor”.
Through rules on citizenship and immigration, racist and xenophobic conceptualisations of who is worthy of being labelled “British” are normalised. Non-UK nationals are strongly represented among the ranks of hospital cleaners, porters, security guards and catering staff. Black workers are the ethnic group most likely to be in “unskilled” work, while being the ethnic group with the lowest percentage of workers in managerial, directorial or senior official jobs. Denying entry into the UK on the basis of skill means the UK government is more likely to deny entry to black people and other people of colour. Discussions surrounding immigration are coded with racist language, and this new Bill is merely another avenue for the UK government to deny rights to non-white people.
It is getting harder and harder for me to watch my family members work for a government that is already thinking of ways to keep people like us out of the country once this pandemic is over.
Black people are four times more likely to die from Covid-19, yet the government is still failing to extend sympathy towards them. It makes the performative nature of the #clapfortheNHS campaign ever-present, shining a light on how empty gestures such as this do absolutely nothing to protect the most vulnerable in society. MPs are wilfully ignorant to the fact that the structural barriers and systemic discrimination faced by non-white people are manifested in the disproportionately high death rate of NHS staff from BME backgrounds, and the passing of this points-based Immigration Bill just adds salt to the wounds. No amount of clapping will cover this up.
I have family members who are NHS staff and immigrated to the UK from Nigeria, working for a country they would be denied entry into under the regime proposed by the home secretary. We are living in stressful times as it is, but as a black person, seeing on the news that you are four times more likely to die from Covid-19, while having family members who are essential workers, leaves you with a constant feeling of anxiety that haunts you on a daily basis.
Coronavirus-induced anxiety is more prevalent within the black community, but for me, this news has confirmed what I already knew: racism lies within the fabric of the government’s hostile environment polices. Not only are they aggressively failing to protect black people during this pandemic, but through immigration policies, they are actively working to push us further into an abject status. It is getting harder and harder for me to watch my family members work for a government that is already thinking of ways to keep people like us out of the country once this pandemic is over.
Timi Sotire is a freelance writer.