Migrant workers won’t get deported for going on strike, the Home Office has announced. Following a campaign led by the University and College Union and John McDonnell, Sajid Javid confirmed that legal strike action won’t count towards the annual 20-day limit for unpaid absence from work for Tier 2 visa workers.
The issue of immigration status came up earlier this year when thousands of academic staff - many of them migrants - went on strike for 14 days, protesting proposed changes to their pension scheme. At the same time, Drs Ernesto Schwartz-Marin and Arely Cruz-Santiago at Durham University were nearly deported after apparently breaching their Tier 2 visa requirements due to time spent performing humanitarian work in Mexico. This sparked fears that a similar fate could befall striking academics.
The change to Home Office rules is welcome. Nevertheless, the challenges of trade union organising for migrant workers don’t end here. The current visa regime leaves non-EEA migrants at the mercy of their bosses, meaning that losing one’s job carries the risk of deportation. Some employers have even collaborated with the Home Office in order to clamp down on unions. In 2009 at SOAS, immigration officers raided a meeting of cleaners campaigning for a Living Wage and better employment conditions, leading to the deportation of eight workers.
Despite these obstacles, migrants have spearheading many of the most important disputes in recent years. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW) have dealt serious blows against the ‘gig economy’. The cleaners at SOAS finally achieved their aims, winning the Living Wage and in-house contracts, as did migrant workers at LSE. IWGB has taken on Deliveroo, demanding workers’ rights for formally “self-employed” couriers. Precarious migrant workers organised in UVW have won concessions at locations such as HR Owen’s Ferrari, Sotheby’s auction house and the offices of the Daily Mail. Contrary to the often-repeated (and disproven) myth about migrants driving down wages and employment conditions, these inspiring examples show migrant workers at the forefront of fighting exploitation.
The best way to ensure that migrant workers can even more effectively fight for better pay and workplace conditions is to guarantee their ability to move across borders without fear of detention and deportation. If Brexit ends free movement for EU nationals, Britain will shove even more workers into the labyrinth of the visa system. The walls of that labyrinth confine migrant workers to a life of unstable access to healthcare and housing, and often force them to remain in hyper-exploitative jobs because the state provides them with no real safety net if they are dismissed. What is more, Sajid Javid’s announcement doesn’t change the fact that huge swathes of union activities remain illegal in the UK - a country with some of the most draconian anti-union laws of any liberal democracy in the world.
It is time for trade unions and for the Labour Party to acknowledge the facts: freedom of movement is beneficial to workers. Conceding to narratives about “social dumping” and allowing us to be divided by nationality only serves to undermine the working class: a class that has never consisted solely of white British-born men. Instead of scapegoating foreigners for low pay, we are better off campaigning for free movement and stronger collective bargaining rights. Let’s build unions, not borders.