Toggle high contrast

Overworked, underpaid and over here - Migrant workers in Britain

Issue date

Migrant Workers in Britain

You can purchase the full report online from our publications shop here

Section One : Introduction

It is often said that there are only two trade union stories, so far as the press are concerned: strikes and splits with a Labour government. Similarly there seem to be only two stories concerning migrants: criminal activity and sponging off the state.

So, for example, on 19 June this year the Daily Mail chose to cover the enlargement of the EU, not as expansion of markets, or increased freedom of movement of workers, but under the headline 'EU’s 73 million new citizens can claim benefit here'. The Mail’s coverage of the attacks on a handful of Kurdish refugees in Wrexham on 24 June included a map showing the locations of other dispersed refugees and asylum seekers, and the claim that 'because so few asylum seekers are ever thrown out of this country, thousands continue to live here illegally, usually heading straight for London'.

Then in early July, both the Mail and the Daily Express carried stories on the supposed cost to the taxpayer of providing a translator for a refugee elected as a councillor as well as the alleged crimes of an asylum seeker arrested at his wedding.

The government, although having taken a number of initiatives aimed at increasing access to the UK labour market, focuses attention on illegality and enforcement measures. So on 16 June Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes announced plans for Iraqi asylum seekers to be returned, which would be 'starting small and building up with the start of enforced returns later this year.' The following day she announced new visa documentation intended to combat document fraud, and an expansion of the 'white list' of allegedly safe countries from which asylum applicants would be detained. This was linked with other toughened measures including those against illegal working.

Then the deployment of detection equipment in Belgium on 20 June was linked with criminal activity and illegal immigration, and on 23 June increased border security at Calais was equated with getting a message through to traffickers.

Meanwhile, t he new Italian Presidency of the EU has made clear its determination to focus on immigration. The Presidency website links international terrorism with transnational crime and illegal migration, prompting the respected weekly European Voice to comment '...the Berlusconi government is insinuating that fleeing poverty in Africa or Asia is akin to planting a bomb on a crowded shopping street' [1] .

This blurring by media and governments of the distinction between refused asylum seekers, illegal working, illegal entry and criminal activity such as trafficking contributes to increased suspicion of all migrants and those who seem to be foreign. This also means that it can be difficult for trade unions to identify and present the key issues from the perspective of defending the interests of workers.

This briefing is intended to highlight some of these issues, and to contribute to the debate on rights for all workers. It is published to accompany the TUC/JCWI conference 'Migrant Workers’ Rights - are we doing enough in Britain?' This conference takes place in the month that the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families comes into force (sadly though not in Britain which has, like all other EU states, declined to ratify it).

You can purchase the full report online from our publications shop here.

[1] Editorial, European Voice, 3-9 July 2003