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Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Feature: Paul Donovan writes on plight of undocumented workers in UK
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¬†Alex has been living and working in London for the past 12 years. He is an undocumented worker which means he constantly has to look over his shoulder for immigration officers who might seize and return him to Brazil at any time. Alex, 37, likes London, he has made it his home but is tired of living in the virtual reality world of the undocumented worker. "I came in on a tourist visa and overstayed. I was offered a full time job with all the benefits that that involves in 1999 but couldn't take it due to my status. I had to just disappear," said Alex. For most of the time he has been in London Alex has worked for the same employer fulfilling a number of roles including chef, waiter and bar man. His place of work has been raided twice. The first time he escaped, the second he was not in on the day in question. As the government increases the pressure on employers - who take on undocumented workers - so people like Alex also feel the heat. "My employers are now saying something will have to be sorted out or I'll have to stop the job," said Alex, who is also putting himself at further risk by taking part in a London based campaign calling for regularisation for undocumented workers. "We have to stand up. There is so much in the media about us being criminals, coming to take benefits, it is not true and we must say so," said Alex. "It is constant insecurity that is grinding. I've lived here 12 years but I still have to live life day by day," said Alex. Walter, 41, came to London three years ago as an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe. At home he had his house burned down and suffered death threats. He quickly realised he had to get out if he wanted to survive. Since arriving in London, Walter and his wife Tricia have lived in several places including with his sister-in-law, brother and other family members. "It was too overcrowded and in the end we became homeless. I was able to get a flat from Barking and Dagenham Council in 2005 and studied for a diploma in computing at Newham College," said Walter, whose asylum claim was initially denied but is now under review. He receives some support benefit but wants to work. "'I've always worked. I want to support myself not take benefits, said Walter, who feels he is living in a limbo type situation. He believes the uncertainty and not being able to work is putting pressure on his marriage. "My wife looked after me when I was ill and wants to be able to work, it is not a good situation," said Walter. Alex and Walter are just two of the estimated 320,000 undocumented workers living and working in London. The Home Office estimate that there could be as many as 570,000 such workers in the country as a whole, though given the lack of accurate records many believe the figure could be far higher. The total is made up of failed asylum seekers, overstayers and trafficked migrants. They work mainly in jobs considered dirty, difficult and dangerous (IPPR). These include work in cleaning, hospitality, home care, agriculture and food processing. The number of failed asylum alone awaiting removal from the UK alone is somewhere between 155,000 and 283,500 according to the National Audit Office. Once an asylum claim has failed or the individual has run out of the means to continue with the appeal process then benefits are cut off and they are denied the right to work. For good measure over the last couple of years the government has also ruled that they cannot receive medical care except in emergency cases unless able to pay for the treatment. The result has been to drive tens of thousands into destitution, dependent on voluntary organisations and faith groups for survival. The hardline attitude of the government was typyfied recently by Home Secretary John Reid who boasted of "throwing out" record numbers of asylum seekers and making life as "constrained and uncomfortable" as possible for undocumented migrants. "It is unfair that foreigners come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits, steal our services like the NHS and undermine the minimum wage by working," said Reid. There is though a growing movement of people that claim the Home Office is adopting completely the wrong approach, seemingly measuring its effectiveness according to how many people it can deport from the country each year. Yet as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants points out at the present rate of 20,000 removals a year it would take a quarter of a century to clear the backlog. And as the Institute for Public Policy Research highlight the cost of such an enterprise at £11,000 per deportation would run to some £4.7 billion. This blinkered approach of government is having other repercussions across London and beyond. Labour MP for Dagenham Jon Cruddas has pointed out how undocumented workers are drawn to areas of low cost housing like his own. Given that no one knows how many there are or where they are this means there is a lack of public provision for services. Research by the Local Government Association (LGA) underlined the extent of the problem, quoting the example of Slough, where national data showed 300 migrants in residence while National Insurance Number registrations revealed the true figure to be nearer 9,000 in residence. The under resourcing of already deprived areas creates an opportunity for the far right BNP to come in and mop up votes. "Local people see migrants being used to undermine their work and livelihoods. The population in this area (Dagenham) is probably growing faster than state investment in public services," explains Cruddas. "The BNP come in with simple race based solutions. They blame one racial group and so pitch one part of the community against the other." The BNP won 11 council seats in Dagenham at the last local elections. A growing number of churches, trade unions and employers are calling on the government to reverse the present policy and move to a regularisation for undocumented migrants who have lived and worked in the UK for a sustained period. The economic argument makes sense with the IPPR claiming that there could be an annual benefit of £1 billion to the exchequer in terms of taxes collected from the newly created citizens. This compares to a £4.7 billion cost for deporting the same number of people. Trade union support is born from a concern of unscrupulous employers using undocumented workers to undercut those already on low levels of pay in the UK. "Migrant workers need to join a union so that they can avoid being exploited themselves or being used to undercut those already on low rates of pay," said Pauline Doyle of the Transport & General Workers Union. The T&G together with the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and Jon Cruddas are among those supporting the Strangers into Citizens campaign run by the community based Citizens Organising Foundation (COF). The campaign calls for a regularisation for workers who have been in the country for four years, contributed to society and not been in trouble with the law. "The Government cannot continue to sit on the fence and must move to regularise these undocumented workers," said Neil Jameson, co-ordinator of COF. "There are more than 500,000 undocumented workers in the Britain who want to work and pay taxes. It would make economic and moral sense to allow them to do this by having a regularisation." The call for regularisation is also supported by employers. The trade association for cleaning companies the Cleaning Services Support Association has recently backed the Strangers into Citizens campaign. "We have been hugely affected by undocumented and illegal working. There have been lengthy discussions with the Home Office but the present rules are completely unworkable," said Andrew Large, the secretary general of the CSSA. "A regularisation is the best way of dealing with undocumented workers in the UK. The government's idea of mass deportation is just not practical. We must find a way of integrating these people otherwise the conditions are being created for an exploitable underclass." So there is growing support for the idea of a regularisation of undocumented workers but still much work to be done if government is to be converted from its present draconian approach to the problem.
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