Do you remember the story of the 20 Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay, the youngest a girl aged 15. Of the survivors, nine were asylum seekers. They had been living in squalid conditions in Liverpool, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, with little food and poor heating. This week another story. Roma workers from northern Greece fled from a daffodil farm in Cornwall under police escort. They claimed they'd been beaten, threatened and left unpaid. The men were housed in army tents, the women in a windowless cattle shed. A local council officer declared their accommodation "totally unfit for human habitation". The daffodil pickers work from dawn to dusk, always working by hand. One described the conditions: "Your bones hurt at the end of the day. You are bent over, staring at the ground, for eight or nine hours a day. You have to be tough, otherwise you get sick, and then no one will pay you anything."
Thirty percent of all "gangworkers" in Britain are migrants. All experience low pay, lousy conditions and no protection. Wealthy landowners, the big supermarkets and the multinational food packers, like Spanish-based Conservas Dani (who bought up most of the cockles) gain super-profits from these workers' misery. After the Morecambe Bay tragedy, faced with the tide of sympathy and horror, Labour ministers rushed to deny responsibility, blaming "unscrupulous gangmasters". Beverley Hughes from the Home Office attacked "highly organised criminal elements". This blogger will never defend exploiting employers. But the Catholic bishop of Lancaster asked the right question-do we provide enough protection for these "migrant workers who contribute enormously to our economy and our welfare"? What protection does Labour offer these workers? There is no regulation of gangmasters, though the TGWU union has been pressing for it. These workers don't get minimum wages-to the delight of the farm employers New Labour left agricultural workers out of their 1997 legislation.
Jabez Lam of the Chinese rights group Min Quan expressed the real anger of the Chinese community. They can't forget the 58 young Chinese who suffocated to death in a lorry at Dover just four years ago. Mr Lam said, "This is a situation created by the government's immigration and asylum policy. They are denying people the right to decent living conditions, and the right to work and housing. These people have to put themselves at risk to make a living." On the one hand, Labour wants a "flexible" labour force, with little regulation. The numbers of agency workers and temporary workers are set to grow. The government wants to meet employers' demands for cheap labour. On the other hand, the asylum laws drive people into the gangmasters' arms, on farms, in food packing, on unsafe construction sites. Since January 2003 asylum seekers whose applications "fail" are officially made destitute, denied the right to work, to housing, to medicine, to all benefits. The London mayor's office estimates that each week 200 are made destitute in London alone. Many disappear into the black economy where wages and conditions are appalling and their safety is unprotected; the "flexible" labour force invented by Tony Blair grows day in, day out.
Israfil Shiri, an Iranian asylum seeker, burned himself to death in Manchester after an unbearable existence in destitution, begging friends for food, lacking medicines and sleeping in wastebins. Like thousands of others he could not go back to Iran, fearing persecution. Blunkett's cruel laws killed him. When "illegal" workers receive slave wages, other workers' wages and conditions also suffer. It suits capitalist governments as it suits capitalist employers to divide the workforce into "legal" and "illegal". Jabez Lam was right. The problem is the immigration and asylum laws. Workers have always moved around the world, from the birth of industrial capitalism. As the world becomes more unequal, the rate of movement rises. Those who migrate are mostly the young, the most energetic and educated. Most are unmarried. They take terrible risks in a quest for a safer and better life. Movements of capital and trade become freer all the time. But people wanting to cross borders face increased suspicion and persecution, led by governments who play into the racists' hands. For socialists, the only possible policy is opposition to all laws restricting immigration and asylum. We should be as free to move from China to Britain as from Lowestoft to London. Plus all workers, irrespective of their origin, need maximum legal and union protection. Some people worry about numbers. However, first the numbers go up and down depending on the level of employment. Second, and more important, a focus on numbers is a way to hide the human truths of migration and ill-treatment. As Tony Woodley of the TGWU commented on Morecambe Bay, "This is not a migration issue. It is above all an exploitation issue." Down with the borders, and the governments who defend them.