From the TUC

What Byron Burgers tell us about policing migration

04 Aug 2016, by in International

A lot has been written about the immigration raids at Byron Burger restaurants across London a month ago which saw 35 people arrested and led to protests recently. Many have criticised the company for getting more involved than legally necessary, whereas others have suggested the management were just trying to carry out their legal duties.

I think the issue highlights two key issues: first, how dependent the London service sector is on migration to supply a cheap labour force. And second, how crazy it is to try to turn employers, landlords, education and health professionals into immigration police.

It is perhaps surprising that just 35 people were arrested at the restaurants run by Byron Burgers – once boosted by George Osborne’s choice of them for his pre-budget snack. Those targeted were reported to have come from Albania, Brazil, Egypt and Nepal. Many more Byron Burgers staff will presumably have come from countries across the European Union, affected by the Brexit referendum decision at the end of June.

Wages in the sector are notoriously low, and Byron Burgers was one of many restaurant chains targeted by Unite last year in its campaign to ensure that tips weren’t skimmed off the wages paid to staff. Such chains employ young, migrant workers because they don’t have the costs that older, settled workers have – like families or mortgages.

But they also employ them because they are less likely to answer back, and that applies in particular to migrant workers whose status in the UK is not completely legal (the term illegal immigrant is often used loosely – people on student visas, for instance, can often work for limited hours a week, so they might be ‘illegal’ one week and then legal again the next.) The TUC has been working with migrant workers for years, providing them with information about their rights, and all too often we hear of unscrupulous employers who suddenly ‘discover’ that a worker is an illegal immigrant the day they insist on their rights or join a union.

It’s like in the movie Casablanca, where the corrupt Vichy policeman Captain Renault, ordered to close Humphrey Bogart’s bar by the Germans, insists that he is “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” just before being handed his winnings.

This is what happens when employers are turned into the immigration police. The TUC believes that we need a bigger Border Force, and we want it to make sure people aren’t being trafficked into the UK or exploited. But contracting that job out to employers gives good employers a massive headache, and bad ones the whip hand in dealing with people whose legal employment status is uncertain or worse. We say leave it to the professionals.

That would mean employers not facing the choices that Byron Burgers faced – and not making the wrong one. As Unite Hotel and Restaurant Workers Branch organiser Ewa Jasciewicz said to the Guardian:

“The law doesn’t tell Byron to entrap workers, to lure them into a trap, to trick them into coming into work when actually they are being raided and they are going to be deported. A responsible employer that values the people that work for them, that make them their profits, would actually support them to get the right papers, to help them stay.”