Evidence presented by Liz Fekete on behalf of the PPT at the APPG on Race and Community & APPG on
Migration Putting People First: Protecting Public Services from the Hostile Environment,
4 April 2019, Committee Room 9, Palace of Westminster.
On 3-4 November 2018, migrants’ rights groups, trades unionists and race experts came together to put the ‘hostile environment’ on trial at the fourth European session of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on the violations with impunity of the human rights of migrant and refugee peoples. An expert jury heard testimony from witnesses drawn from frontline services, academia, migrants’ networks and, crucially, migrants and refugees themselves, including former immigration detainees, care workers, cleaners and domestic workers.
What did this public opinion tribunal teach us and what did it reveal?
From the outset I should say that the evidence we received and heard both as written and oral testimony pointed to the fact that the issue of public services could not be divorced from the hostile environment of employer sanctions, the criminalisation of work and workplace exploitation. Denial of services and a nativist approach to migrant workers goes hand in hand. And that’s the main message of the PPT that I am bringing here today.
The PPT foregrounded the widespread subcontracting and outsourcing which leads to the creation of ‘sites without rights’ or ‘spaces for exploitation’. We heard from witnesses repeatedly how ‘migrant’ status puts people outside the protection of public services andthe law, including labour laws – witness the failure to enforce the minimum wage for migrant workers and the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in 2013.
Testimony from trades unionists and workers in specific sectors showed how migrants can be virtually disenfranchised: hotels and housekeeping, warehousing, road haulage, in food and agriculture, in construction (where bonded labour is even used) and in care and domestic work, where a mainly legal female workforce faces sex, race and class discrimination, usually with no access to legal remedies.
The creation of illegality is intimately tied to the deterrence logic of the hostile environment which dissuades people from accessing public services including health care. It starts with the conscription of employers, landlords, university staff and medics, into surveillance and enforcement. But we heard too how it builds on the legal measures that have criminalised work since the 1990s - the ban on work for asylum seekers, the introduction and intensification of employer sanctions, salary thresholds for settlement and family reunification, the creation in 2016 of a new criminal offence of illegal working.
I am sure the APPG on Race & Community has been addressing some of these issues, such as how employer sanctions affect immigration enforcement through raids on mainly small, BAME-owned workplaces. One witness, Bobby Chan of the Min Quan Advocacy Group, claimed the law has been weaponised by Home Office officials with unchecked power to close a business down. He told how frequent raids, accompanied by physical brutality, were in fact a legalised shakedown rather than real immigration enforcement, with those arrested being released within minutes but employers expected to pay fines of £20,000 a time. This is leading to contempt for the law.
A number of witnesses described the perverse impact of immigration rules. Kent Refugee Help explained how the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule creates crime, by creating destitution. Leeds Migrant Action and Dr Jon Burnett of Swansea University spoke of the ‘captive labour’ of detained asylum seekers, denied permission to work in the UK but performing nearly a million hours of menial work in detention without the protection of labour laws, at less than a seventh of the minimum wage. This again leads to contempt for the government, an exploitative employer which argues that it is fine to pay detainees £1 an hour because ‘this is not work, but a way of passing time’.
Yes, the evidence presented to the PPT pointed to the dangers in data sharing and the shameful exclusion from services, but it also highlighted the need to understand how government policy and law provide the structures for super-exploitation. Creating a climate of fear where the sick and undocumented are too frightened to access public services places enormous power in the hands of unscrupulous employers and also creates divisions among NHS staff, with some workers, as Dr Neal Russell explained, willingly using racial profiling to decide who should pay for services within a charging system that is out of reach for poorly paid migrant workers. (This same doctor was one of several who returned medals awarded for fighting Ebola in West Africa because they believe creating fear and mistrust in the NHS is wrong and that ‘collectively, as human beings we should never allow anything to stand in the way to access to health care’)
All the written evidence presented to the PPT can be found on the website of the Transnational Migrants Platform where we will also download videos of some of the testimony. Next week we are meeting in the European parliament to discuss our findings with parliamentarians and our colleagues in Barcelona, Palermo and Paris who also organised hearings. Although the UK is the only country where the hostile environment has officially been acknowledged as a state policy objective, it is practised in effect in every EU country, and by the EU which has announced its intention to suspend search and rescue in the Mediterranean. The EU is complicit in sending boat people back to Libyan detention centres where they are subjected to forced labour (yes, the issue of labour exploitation returns!), as well as sexual abuse, trafficking and torture including electric shocks, burns, lashes and even flaying.
The PPT indictment, by immigration expert Frances Webber, is available in the current issue of the IRR’s journal Race & Class.We will be bringing out a book including all the testimonies next year. The courage and commitment of the witnesses who appeared before the PPT is acknowledged by all of us who took part as the driver of the judgment which is now being finalised and will be delivered to the Home Office shortly.