Migrant Workers: Byron betrayed its workers. The system betrays us all

Guardian
Protesters at a branch of the Byron burger chain
Protesters at a branch of the Byron burger chain in London after a raid on undocumented workers. 

Byron: a company that milks the labour of migrant workers for profit, entraps them and helps to have them kicked out of the country. Last month the company called its workers into a training session on cooking burgers. It was a trap. Immigration officers stormed in, locked the doors, and interrogated some for hours. At least one was escorted away in handcuffs; some were deported the same day. “They didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to loved ones,” says Ewa Jasiewicz, a Unite trade union organiser. “They were trapped and tricked.” One wasn’t even able to say goodbye to his pregnant wife. In a show of solidarity, some co-workers walked out for the day.

Some will march to Byron’s defence. The company will say it was merely fulfilling its legal requirements. The law and justice are not interchangeable concepts, of course. “The law can be an ass,” saysTawanda Nyabango, of the IWW union. “Historically protest movements have emerged which have believed the law is not as it should be, or too heavy-handed, and changed those laws.” Government legislation effectively turns businesses and landlords into border guards for the state: a company can be fined £20,000 for every illegal migrant working for it. But there was nothing in the law compelling a company to lure its hard-working employees into this shockingly demeaning trap.

Some of these workers had been at the company for years. They showed loyalty: their employer offered only betrayal. “A responsible employer should have supported the workers in getting the right documentation,” says Jasiewicz. Nyabango makes a more general point about the sector. “Large commercial organisations in the service sector regularly abuse employment law and fail to follow it in the spirit it is intended,” he says.

The blood, sweat and tears of undocumented migrants help keep this country running. As a leading politician put it: “I am in favour of an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been here for more than 12 years, contribute to the economy, unable to pay taxes, unable to take proper part in society. And I will tell you why: because it is the humane thing to do.” Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps? No, the speaker was none other than Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary. Widespread concerns about immigration should not be dismissed as racism. But there is an adult debate to be had about undocumented migrants – which even the likes of Johnson seem willing to entertain.

wildcat strikes in oil refineries were portrayed as xenophobic with racist hostility to migrant workers: actually the strikers were fighting for all workers to have the same terms and conditions
Grangemouth oil refinery workers on strike in 2008. ‘Wildcat strikes were portrayed as xenophobic with racist hostility to migrant workers: actually the strikers were fighting for all workers to have the same terms and conditions.’ 

This saga also brings into focus the debate we are all too often denied: who are the real scourges of society? Rather than undocumented waiters, we should perhaps spend more time examining the tax practices of companies like Byron. Like all too much of corporate Britain, the company reportedly uses clever ruses pertaining to corporation tax: in this case, borrowing from subsidiaries run by Byron’s owners in tax havens and then using UK profits to pay it off.

These are companies that depend on the state – for everything from infrastructure to in-work benefits to top up their workers’ wages – but fail to contribute back. Small businesses cannot choose to seek loopholes, and are driven out of business by those who can – while large accountancy firms are sent to the Treasury to help draw up tax laws, and then tell clients how to avoid the laws they have helped to design. The way the law is systematically rigged in favour of tax-avoiding companies tells us much about the balance of power in modern British society.

The story of Byron is less one of immigration and more one of an unregulated labour market designed to benefit employers. It is estimated that there is a higher proportion of workers paid the minimum wage in tourism, hospitality and leisure than in any other sector. “Exploitation is rampant,” says Jasiewicz. “It’s full of zero-hours contracts, people not being paid, not getting their tips.”

Robert Czegley worked in the restaurant of a major London hotel and fought for fairer tipping practices, as well as trade union recognition. According to Unite, he was sacked after being found with a flyer that, his employers claimed, “brought them into disrepute”. He was later reinstated – but he was lucky: one might ask whether that would have been the case had he not enjoyed the backing of a union.

Unethical employers rightly deduce that the desperation of migrant workers means they will accept conditions that native-born workers simply will not. Between 2010/11 and 2012/13, 4,780 British employers were found not be complying with minimum wage law, but there were only two prosecutions, and inspections for compliance fell dramatically.

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