Friday, April 27, 2007

Rights for migrant workers

An estimated 175 million people world-wide live outside their countries of origin, most driven by globalisation and hopes of jobs and higher pay. Migrant workers make up 10% of the working population in Britain, an increase of a third since 1995. Yet their dreams are often dashed as they are become the victims of exploitation and abuse. The plight of the Lithuanians, revealed this week by a BBC investigation, who ended up as bonded labour in Britain, permanently in debt to their gang master, is only one example. Yet they were officially entitled to work in the Britain as citizens of the European Union. Even more vulnerable are those who work "irregularly", without papers or legal rights. In Britain, there are thought to be 570,000 irregular workers and campaigners are fighting to end their enforced isolation. A report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in July 2006 found that most of the irregulars entered, or remain in the UK, "to escape developing world poverty or human rights violations". They were compelled to live in an unregulated immigration capacity because they were denied legitimate migration routes and full rights. As a result, the report added, the system created "an underclass vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation". Some are in Britain as a result of being people trafficked, ending up as sex workers or, tragically as it proved, collecting cockles in Morecambe Bay. Most, of course, live in fear of being dragged off to a privatised detention centre and eventually forced on to a plane at Heathrow and thrown out of the country. Habib Rahman, chief executive of JCWI, said: "It's a political reality that around half a million irregular migrants can't readily be deported and EU migration alone cannot be relied on to fill the jobs many of them are doing. It's time to get real, put this beyond politics and start talking practical solutions. The starting point must be rights for all migrants. In the end a system that denies full rights to all migrants in the UK is both socially unjust and is creating losers all round. It makes life difficult for business, workers and for any government."

But the JCWI’s pleas for cross-party support for regularisation have fallen on deaf ears. The New Labour government has used migration as an issue to win support from reactionary sections of the suburban electorate who are terrified by the stories they read in the Daily Express or Daily Mail. On April 18, for example, Immigration Minister Liam Byrne declared that immigration was harming Britain’s poor and had deeply unsettled the country. The government then announced new immigration controls would begin next year aimed at allowing only skilled workers into the country. Meanwhile, the European Union has set up a militarised system called Frontex to keep would-be migrants out. Between August and December 2006, they held 3,500 refugees in the Atlantic ocean, and without investigating the migrants’ reasons for fleeing, deported them to Senegal and Mauretania. Official estimates of the Spanish authorities estimate that 6,000 people died on the same routes between West Africa and the Canary Islands. Hundreds of people who were deported with the help of Frontex starved in the deserts of the north African states to which they were sent.

On May 7, campaigners representing a wide range of organisations, will march from Westminster Cathedral Piazza (Victoria Street, SW1) at 11am to demand an amnesty and regularisation for all migrant workers, and for the abolition of racist immigration controls. Their campaign needs urgent support.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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