Slaves in all but name?

Madeleine Bunting, taking as her starting point a description of how failed Iraqi asylum seeker Nehad (not his real name), who has been in England since 2003,  manages to eke out a meagre and thoroughly debasing existence while living as an illegal worker in Birmingham, has written an instructive comment is free piece for today’s edition of The Guardian. She explains how the half a million irregular migrants, just like Nehad, except possibly a little less articulate, who are presently living in this country have has now come to be seen as an army of cheap labour that helps to feed the booming economy. As far as Bunting is concerned, it’s slavery by another name.  

Yet no politician is prepared to admit that, given the fevered anxieties about immigration in this country. These half a million have become a political no-go area: everyone has a vested interest in pretending they don’t exist. They’ve provided labour for
Britain‘s booming economy, filling the increasing personal-service job sectors of domestic work, cleaning, catering, food processing and hospitality.

In this zombie category of irregulars, you are vulnerable to every thug, every kind of criminality – and yet you can never turn to the police. You get turned away from doctor’s surgeries. Your employer can deduct money from your wages, increase your hours, withhold pay and you can do nothing or he will make threatening requests for a national insurance number. Likewise, your landlord can up the rent and ignore complaints about repairs.

No one has wanted to broach the debate. Refugee organisations are too busy fighting for a fair asylum system, and trade unions, while aware of how employers can exploit irregular migrants and how that has a knock-on effect on other low-paid workers, have held back from an unpopular issue. Into this gap has stepped the Citizens Organising Foundation – representing community and faith groups in London and Birmingham – with plans to launch a campaign, Strangers into Citizens, in the new year, which will aim to open up a space to discuss this subject sensibly. It’s the COF that is hunting out the rare characters like Nehad who have the courage to speak out, and have learned good enough English to tell a story that booming Britain doesn’t want to hear.

Maybe now’s not the time to be apologising, as Mr. Blair recently did,  for the misdeeds of our ancestors when it came to slavery; maybe it’s the time for proving that we do abhor slavery by stamping out this pernicious modern version of it.  


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