The current “debate” about immigration focuses on economic arguments, with the bosses arguing that they need “skilled migrants” to fill gaps in the workforce. This is a partial truth, the other side of the coin is that migrant workers are also needed to do the low-status “unskilled” jobs as cleaners, security guards, agricultural labourers and workers in food processing plants which “native” workers can’t be dragooned into doing. However, the argument that immigration is “good for the economy” is not one we should adopt. “The economy” is the value of what the ruling class own, increased through our exploitation; anarcho-syndicalists reject the social democratic view that capitalism can be managed for the good of the working class.

not driving down wages

Similarly, we also reject the simplistic view that immigration forces down wages merely by increasing the labour supply. No-one accuses non-unionised “native” workers of driving down wages by taking low-paid jobs. Workers who are low-paid and unorganised are not so by choice, they are forced to work for whatever they can get and prevented from organising to improve pay and conditions by circumstances which make it difficult to do so. So why are migrants accused of undermining pay and conditions? The truth is they just want to earn a living on the best terms they can get and would love to have better pay and conditions. Many of them would also like to be active union members and to organise to improve pay and conditions for all workers.

It is immigration controls which prevent many migrants working legally and make them vulnerable to super-exploitation. Their most significant effect is to undermine the pay and conditions of first migrants, then of all workers. If you want to improve pay and conditions in sectors where there are many migrant workers you have to offer them solidarity, you have to organise with them and you have to oppose immigration controls which hinder resistance. The nationalistic ideas that migrants are taking jobs which belong to “British” workers, competing with them to drive down wages, claiming benefits and using public services paid for by “British” taxes serve to legitimise both immigration controls and the idea that migrants are somehow second class workers whose super-exploitation is justified. “Native” workers who buy into these ideas are buying into the mechanism by which their own pay and conditions are undermined by the bosses and the state, not by migrants.

workplace checks

Since the immigration “debate” is now framed as being about distinguishing between “good” migrants – skilled, well-paid, English-speaking, “westernised” – and “bad” – “unskilled”, low-paid, poor English language skills – the government has introduced a regime of workplace immigration checks employers are required by law to carry out, backed up by heavy fines and enforced through high-profile raids on those who don’t. Companies like iss, who have a cleaning contract on London Underground, are systematically calling in workers to check their National Insurance numbers. Those who are working illegally usually respond to this by disappearing; to turn up for work with a bogus NI number is to invite arrest, detention and deportation. Collective action is difficult to organise as these are poorly-unionised sectors with little real industrial muscle or, as in the case of iss, a contractor separated from the unionised workforce directly employed by London Underground Limited (LUL).

The maximum fine under the “civil penalty” regime which was introduced in February is £10,000 per employee found to be working illegally, so it pays for big companies to do thorough checks. The only possible legal challenge to checks would have to be based on Race Discrimination legislation and would involve challenging those which target a particular group within the workforce on the basis of race or nationality. However, simply checking everybody’s NI numbers would avoid such a legal challenge so this has a very limited scope, affecting only incompetent employers. The UK Border Agency has even issued guidelines on how to avoid racial discrimination in carrying out checks.

GMB no help

Companies which don’t implement these checks are liable to be raided. To give one example from the Ealing Gazette, 2nd May 2008: “Police stormed the factory at 6am on Monday to make the site safe for UK Border Agency officers following a tip-off. Up to 80 officers spent 12 hours interviewing more than 400 staff at Katsouris Fresh Foods, which supplies dips and ready meals to supermarket chains including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose.” 22 workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, were detained. The factory is unionised, but this isn’t much help for the workers concerned because: “A GMB spokesman said: ‘We have every confidence in Katsouris and its conduct in this matter and their willingness to cooperate with the authorities. We believe Katsouris has demonstrated to us that they only employ legitimate workers. However, we do have issues with the way in which this visit was conducted and some of our members have raised concerns at the heavy handed tactics deployed.’”

In other cases the bosses have themselves called in immigration officials as a means of attacking the workforce. In 2006 National Physical Laboratories awarded their cleaning contract to a new firm and the T&G tried to organise the whole workforce. The management retaliated by calling all 30 workers in for a “health and safety meeting” where they were detained in the canteen for document checks by 120 police and immigration officials. Twelve of the workers were deported; another was jailed for benefit fraud. “Coincidentally”, the company had been looking to reduce the workforce and those arrested were not replaced. Subsequently, workers put in a collective grievance about being overworked. The need for migrant workers to organise and the need for them to be free from the fear of detention and deportation have never been clearer.

Justice for Cleaners

Unlike the GMB official quoted above, however, not all trade unionists see their role as ensuring employers obey laws passed by the Labour government. The most high-profile organising campaign aimed at a largely migrant workforce has been Justice for Cleaners (J4C) modelled on the US organisation Justice for Janitors and run in the UK by the T&G/Unite! Since March 2006 it has relied on demonstrations, including occupations, by activists from outside the workplace to shame rich companies into granting a living wage, sick pay, holiday pay and union recognition. The aim is to recruit workers into the T&G and to move from an organisation controlled by professional union organisers to one controlled by elected workplace representatives. It has had significant success and this summer the campaign is being brought to a climax aiming to win union recognition at big firms, set up steward systems and organise a branch from over 1,000 members.

The successes have been based on demonstrations at rich firms for whom the cost of meeting J4C’s demands is insignificant, and worth it to avoid the hassle of being publicly shamed by the union. The campaign began at KPMG in the City of London, and the biggest success was the occupation of Goldman Sachs which led to a union recognition agreement the next day. Cleaners at the latter have also won 10 days’ sick pay, 28 days’ paid holiday and the London Living Wage of £7.20 per hour through collective action. There are no undocumented workers at the firm, however, as immigration screening takes place as part of the recruitment process. Anita Ceravolo, the campaign organiser, admitted at the Trades Union & Community Conference against Immigration Controls on 29th March this year that there were very few undocumented workers in J4C, although more than 50% of its members were either African or Latin American. These legal workers are themselves insecure and wary of the risks involved in taking collective action. In buildings where many cleaners are also undocumented J4C has found it harder to recruit.

Latin American workers

TUC unions are not really interested in recruiting small numbers of workers in hard to organise workplaces. J4C aims at big membership targets through recruiting in big workplaces in specific areas such as Canary Wharf, the City of London and other areas with a high density of big offices.

Another approach is taken by the Latin American Workers’ Association (LAWA), which is supported by the T&G and based in their offices in North London but not part of the union. The office opened in 2005 and has been flooded by workers seeking information and advice about their employment rights, mostly to do with payment problems. They act as “roving shop stewards” and deal mostly with cleaners and catering workers in a huge number of workplaces spread over the whole region. These are small workplaces, not the kind of bargaining units which interest unions, and many workers are undocumented so the legal approach has severe drawbacks. One solution which has been proposed is for “zonal shop stewards” to take on worker representation.

Recruitment campaigns by the TUC unions also have other drawbacks. At the BBC, LAWA campaigned last year among hundreds of cleaners working for contractor OCS. Workers were paid £5.35 an hour, only got 12 days’ holiday a year, suffered daily harassment by management and the English and Irish cleaners over 65 were being forcibly retired. Both groups of cleaners got a petition together against this and for the London Living Wage and J4C’s other demands, but BECTU (the broadcasting union which nominally represented the cleaners) wouldn’t support it and criticised it because it said the T&G was behind it. In spite of widespread support – 700 people signed the petition, including the likes of Gary Lineker and Moira Stuart – the T&G backed off when it realised that, because BECTU had the union recognition rights for cleaners, there was no gain to be made for the union.


The RMT has a different attitude to organising cleaners on the London Underground. They take an industrial union approach and regard the cleaners as part of the railway industry not as part of some separate cleaning industry. This puts them at odds with J4C which has tried to recruit tube cleaners into the T&G, but on a principled basis, unlike BECTU. In June the RMT balloted their 700 members working for four cleaning contractors – iss, ITS, ICS and GBM – on strike action for the London Living Wage, 28 days’ holiday, sick pay, pension rights and travel facilities. They are also demanding an end to “third party sackings” where cleaners can be dismissed at the behest of parties other than their employer without a disciplinary hearing or right of appeal. This tactic is being used to get rid of union activists.

Here privatisation is a big part of the problem. The cleaners used to be directly employed by LUL and had travel passes and access to canteens, but now they work for contractors they have lost both. Since they have to travel on the underground to get from job to job, the loss of travel passes mean that they have to pay to travel out of their own very low wages and are not reimbursed by their employer for this. They also have to prove their right to work every time they get transferred to another contractor, and black workers have been asked for their passports repeatedly, even if they are British citizens. iss are also currently calling workers in systematically for National Insurance number checks and have appointed a specialist Migration Auditor to implement these, sidestepping the possibility that regular staff might resist.

The Finsbury Park branch of the RMT has been given the task of organising cleaners who are in the union. They have set up a representative structure and tried to pass on their experience and knowledge to the cleaners to help them organise themselves. The response of iss has been to ban LUL employees from acting as RMT reps on their premises claiming their presence breaches commercial confidentiality. That is currently under legal challenge. Although there is historically a degree of industrial snobbery towards cleaners from other LUL workers, there are measures which can be used in solidarity with the cleaners on strike. These include a refusal to work on health & safety grounds when standards of cleanliness cannot be met due to strike action. Legal, health & safety-based solidarity action has already been used by the RMT on the Underground to good effect in support of track maintenance workers employed by Metronet.

outside London

At a workshop at the Shop Stewards’ Network national conference last year other trades unionists spoke about their efforts organising Polish workers outside London. In Luton attempts have been made to organise agency workers who are paid the National Minimum Wage. There was a demarcation dispute between the GMB and Amicus/ Unite! and the local Trades Council responded xenophobically. However, good work was done with an organisation called Migrant Gateway which gets EU funding to provide legal advice, translation skills and a multilingual helpline. They aim to produce EU Passport packs to provide information to migrants before they come to the UK, but need further EU funding to do this.

In the GMB’s Southern Region they have taken the need to organise migrant workers seriously, but have had to make it up as they went along. At first they created a Migrant Workers’ Branch but realised that that was a mistake. They are now seeking to integrate migrants into existing branches and have won a national policy that each branch can request the translation of all documents on request. In one branch 400 out of around 2,400 members are Polish. They have formed a Migrant Workers Subcommittee which holds meetings in English because integration is important and the migrants don’t all speak one language. A delegate is sent to the Branch Committee. The participation of migrant workers at training days is also emphasised and encouraged.

community unionism

They have found that in organising Polish workers they can’t just look at workplace issues. They have been training up their lay reps in housing, benefits and other relevant areas of the law, and have organised drop-in days involving solicitors and advice workers. At the same time they recognise the need to organise in the workplace and avoid being a welfare provider. They have found that young Polish workers make good trade unionists. Many of them are women and they recruit British workmates into the union. Other speakers also returned to the theme of “community unionism” which tackles issues which face workers both within and outside the workplace. It was pointed out that in the US there are immigrant worker centres which are geographically-based but focus on workplace issues.

That approach is similar to the concept of the Local which is at the heart of anarcho-syndicalism. Because we reject the idea of a split between political and economic issues and consequently a separate political party, we advocate Locals as a means by which unions can operate geographically to tackle social issues as well as industrially to tackle economic ones. Our approach to both issues is the same – direct action by those affected. Traditionally, direct action is strikes, boycotts, occupations, working-to-rule and other forms of collective action. We are not in favour of either representation or of using the legal system. That does not mean that we won’t use the law as the basis of demands, however, nor as a weapon against the bosses. Health & safety law is a useful tool, as are the National Minimum Wage and the Working Time regulations to a lesser extent. It is in how we enforce our legal rights, and how we deal with individual cases that we differ from the TUC unions and political parties.

direct action casework

In an organised workplace collective action, or the real possibility of it, is used by workers to enforce their legal rights. In a unionised workplace individual cases would be taken up through grievance procedures which usually have to be exhausted before making an application to an Employment Tribunal or going to court. This has the disadvantage of isolating the individual and their grievance from the rest of the workforce through the rules of confidentiality. The alternative advocated and practised by anarcho-syndicalists is now called Direct Action Casework (DAC). This has a particular relevance to undocumented workers who work in unorganised workplaces, who cannot use the legal system and who run the risk of being detained and deported if they take out grievances, where procedures exist.

Although DAC has long been familiar to anarcho-syndicalists it has recently been taken up in Britain by the London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP), inspired by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Canada. LCAP has had success in challenging the practice of “gate-keeping” in Hackney Council’s Homeless Persons Unit by which the right of homeless people to be housed has been restricted in order to hit government targets on ending homelessness. They have also avoided becoming a welfare service provider by helping homeless people in a hostel organise themselves to take collective action to improve their conditions. Part of how LCAP is developing has been to expand the range of competencies to include employment rights and organising in the workplace. In March this year a successful workshop addressing these issues was held involving members of SolFed and of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The experience of LAWA and of those organising with migrant workers outside London underlines the need for a multidimensional approach to improving the lot of migrants and thereby raising the bottom line for the pay and conditions of all workers. Since undocumented workers are at the bottom of the pile and cannot use the legal system, DAC has great potential in this area. Even though the workers are themselves “illegal” this does not relieve bosses of their legal obligations towards their employees. The civil penalty regime for employing migrants illegally also has potential, if handled correctly, as a means of countering the denial of rights as the bosses have a lot to lose if exposed – the workers can just disappear. LCAP will be running another workshop on enforcing your rights at work aimed at those working with undocumented workers in July.

Finally, the plight of undocumented workers has come to the notice of churches and politicians who are calling for amnesties based on a bewildering variety of criteria. During the recent election for the Mayor of London the Liberal Democrat candidate, Brian Paddick, even advocated military service as a way of “earning” citizenship for long-term illegal residents! An amnesty would arbitrarily regularise the status of some undocumented workers but not others and would leave those who come after it, or who were unable to take advantage of it for whatever reason, in the same situation as before. In order to ward off criticism from softer nationalists, the amnesty has also been proposed as a one-off event in conjunction with a subsequent crack-down on new or remaining undocumented workers.

no one is illegal

Anarcho-syndicalists reject states and their borders; we have always regarded the class struggle as worldwide and offered our solidarity to workers of all nationalities. We reject the idea that there should be second-class workers, that these are themselves the problem and that their presence undermines other workers. Workplace checks cannot be separated from the whole question of immigration control. The political and economic aspects of the issue are inextricably linked, attacks on pay and conditions cannot be effectively fought without also fighting immigration controls. Campaigns to organise migrant workers have to include the demand for the regularisation of all migrants. No-one should be illegal.

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