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'The environment is quite hostile': Undocumented workers in U.K. face mounting opposition

Advocates for undocumented workers in the United Kingdom say they have always faced numerous obstacles, but recent changes in legislation mean illegal migrants now face increasingly restrictive immigration controls and sanctions on illegal work.

Illegal migrants are the most marginalized group in Britain's labour market and make an easy target

Hundreds of protesters gather in the rain outside a burger restaurant in central London to protest the deportation of several undocumented employees. (Lauren Courtenay/CBC)

The years David spent working undocumented in London were some of the most humiliating of his life.

"I was waiting every day for somebody to come and take me," says the 59-year-old from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. "Somebody gave them the address of where I was working, and the guys came to take me from my job."

Spotting the immigration officers on a security camera, David hid and avoided arrest. "I was homeless straight away after that," he says.

"It was a very humiliating time in my life."

David was approved to remain in the U.K. six years ago and is living legally in London. But for others like David, similar hardships remain a daily battle.

Advocates for undocumented workers say they have always faced obstacles ranging from disproportionately low wages to unsafe work conditions.

A protester at a demonstration organized to draw attention to the plight of undocumented workers holds a sign outside a Byron Burger restaurant in central London. (Lauren Courtenay/CBC)

But recent changes in legislation mean illegal migrants now also face increasingly restrictive immigration controls and sanctions on illegal work.

The government's 2016 Immigration Act, which received royal assent in May, makes illegal work a criminal offence. Workers caught without documentation can face unlimited fines and a maximum sentence of six months in jail.

Immigration enforcement officers have been given enhanced search and seizure powers over properties based on suspicion of illegal immigrants.

The new legislation also introduced measures to "prevent illegal migrants accessing services" such as driver's licences and bank accounts.

"If you are here illegally, you shouldn't be entitled to receive the everyday benefits and services available to hard-working U.K. families and people who have come to this country legitimately to contribute," then-Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said earlier this year.

Critics say the intention is to deny workers without legal status basic infrastructure to create a normal life in the U.K.

Hate crimes rise

The legislation came into effect at the same time as the U.K was caught up in the Brexit debate, which saw much attention focused on immigration.

The National Police Chiefs' council, which monitors police departments across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, reported a 42 per cent spike in hate crimes between June 16 and 30 — the weeks leading up to and following the June 23 vote.

"The environment is quite hostile," says Petros Elia, general secretary of United Voices of the World, a grassroots trade union. "The comments that people feel they're entitled to make, or that they feel are legitimate, are horrendous." 

A protester holds up a flag that reads 'Refugees Not Welcome' during a demonstration in Dover in southeast England on May 28, 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

Racist comments at the picket line are common, says Elia, adding that these attitudes are spreading.

Immigration has been a focus of debate in the U.K. for some time.

In a speech to the 2015 Conservative Party conference, then-home secretary — and now Prime Minister — Theresa May warned of impacts she saw from immigration.

"When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it's impossible to build a cohesive society," she said.

"We know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further [by immigration] while some people are forced out of work altogether."

'Outlet for their anger'

Elia says the "rhetoric" from May and other mainstream politicians has "given people an outlet for their anger.

For many undocumented workers, however, discriminatory attitudes are overshadowed by the daily anxiety of possibly being caught and deported, as David experienced before he got his papers.

"I remember one woman who said the cost of a job is putting up with all the sexual harassment," says Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voices, an organization highlighting migrant voices in the media.

"Some undocumented women live with someone, a man, provide sexual services for free just to have a place to sleep."

The women can't report any of this, she says. "They are desperate to eat or survive."

British Prime Minister Theresa May was the focus of one protester's sign during a demonstration outside a central London Byron Burger. (Lauren Courtenay/CBC)

The exact number of undocumented migrants in the U.K. is unknown.

A 2009 report by the London School of Economics estimated the number to be around 618,000. However, in 2010, the group Migrant Watch U.K. said that number was "underestimated" and placed it closer to 1.1 million — and rising.

A protest in London — one of many across the country in August — was organized to draw attention to the plight of undocumented workers.

Around 300 protesters gathered outside a central London Byron Burger, a British restaurant chain.

"Keep your burgers, give us our brothers," the crowd chanted.

The "brothers" are 35 illegal migrants, employees at the restaurant who were rounded up in an Immigration Enforcement raid in July. A least 20 have been deported. 

An anonymous Byron employee told the Spanish-language newspaper El Iberico those arrested were called in for training, but were detained shortly after arrival.

Ewa Jasiewicz, protest co-ordinator and communications officer for Unite's Hotel Workers Branch, a union for London's hotel workers, led the mini-coalition of unions, advocacy groups and supporters at the demonstration.

'Tools are broken'

"Even though the law does say that if you're undocumented you can't work, the law doesn't say that the employers should round up their staff, lock the doors and bring Immigration in a raid. That's not part of the law," says Jasiewicz.

Trying to change the cultural and political attitude that exists in the country, however, is like "trying to build with sand in a sandstorm," she says. "The ideas and ideals are there, the strategy is there, but the tools are broken."

In the case of Byron Burger, the Home Office said the immigration raid was carried out with "full co-operation" of the chain.

By complying with the Home Office investigation, the company won't be charged a £20,000 fine per worker it could have faced for employing undocumented workers.

Byron released a statement stating it carried the correct "right to work" checks, but had been shown counterfeit documentation.

Ewa Jasiewicz, the communication officer for Unite’s hotel workers branch, leads the protest outside a Byron Burger in central London. (Lauren Courtenay/CBC)

Protesters called those actions "entrapment" and "textbook exploitation."

"We're going in a cycle where we're edging away from the celebration of multiculturalism and migrants being beneficial to the economy and culture to a place where people feel entitled to be openly racist and xenophobic," says an anonymous member of the London Latinx, a direct action group that helped organize the protests.

"It means businesses then feel entitled to exploit workers, openly humiliate them, degrade them, then ship them off."

'They're an easy target'

Undocumented workers are "an easy target to legislate against," says Alice Bloch, co-author of Living on the Margins, a book that researches the lives of 55 London-based undocumented workers.

Based on her research, Bloch says increasingly punitive sanctions enforced in the new legislation won't reduce the number of illegal workers.

Instead, she suggests, the fear of greater legal persecution will drive undocumented workers further underground, making them considerably easier to exploit.

"In reality they make up a very tiny proportion of the population, they're the most marginalized in terms of the labour market and they don't really have a huge impact on the market," Bloch says.

'It's quiet now'

In 2010, David obtained an Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) permit, an immigration status that gives him the ability to work in the U.K., but he has fewer rights than a refugee.

He has not been able to find work because of his age and lack of experience, which, he says, is a byproduct of waiting for his status.

One of the parameters of an ILR status also prevents David from bringing his wife and 12-year-old son from Georgia until he earns a certain income.

At nearly 60 years old, an age when most would be considering retirement, he is desperately searching for a job.

"It's quiet now. So quiet," he says. "I cannot find job. I am sending dozens of CVs and searching for jobs every day. And still nothing. What can I do? Now I am not scared, I am losing hope."

About the Author

Lauren Courtenay is a fourth-year bachelor of journalism student at Humber College. She just completed a six-week internship with CBC News.