Ten reasons Labour Conference should vote for migrants’ rights

Dan Davison and Emma Jones

The Labour Campaign for Free Movement (LCFM) is a network of Labour members and supporters campaigning to defend and extend free movement and migrants’ rights. The network has put together a model motion for Labour Party Conference, calling on the party to stand up to the Government’s anti-migrant agenda without apology.[1] Additionally, LCFM is holding its own conference on 16 July at Birkbeck, University of London.[2] Here is a short list of reasons to support the Conference motion and LCFM’s broader politics.

1. Migrant workers make up a substantial part of the UK workforce. Last year, a study by Migrant Observatory at the University of Oxford found that, in the third quarter of 2021, an estimated 18% of the employed population (5.9 million) consisted of foreign-born workers.[3] If we fail to stand up for migrants, we fail to stand up for a significant part of the working class in the UK.

2. Contrary to claims made in the press, there is no significant connection between (a) immigration and (b) wage cuts, unemployment, or deterioration in public services.[4] By pandering to so-called “legitimate concerns” that are not fact-based, Labour fails to make the case that the rich and powerful, not immigrants, are to blame for low wages, high rents, and deteriorating services.

3. Right-wing attacks on migrants are designed to divide. This point is obvious, but it bears repeating. The Government and their media allies have a vital interest in diminishing the power of organised labour by fostering resentment between sections of the workforce based on nationality, skin tone, and immigration status (real or perceived). Labour must not play this game.

4. Migrant workers are often at the forefront of fighting exploitation, as in the security guards strike at Great Ormond Street Hospital and the couriers strike at Stuart and JustEat.[5] Newer unions like the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), and United Voices of the World (UVW) have earned a deserved reputation for their dynamism in organising precarious, migrant-heavy workforces. By winning industrial disputes, they have dealt major blows against the ‘gig economy’.[6] Labour should amplify these struggles and emphasise the importance of building unions, not borders.

5. Strengthening migrants’ rights benefits all workers by making it easier to organise against exploitative bosses. By contrast, the visa regime allows employers to undermine strike action by collaborating with the Home Office to suppress trade union activity. Fighting workplace exploitation becomes much harder when being dismissed could mean being deported. In short, migrants’ rights are workers’ rights, and border violence is class warfare.

6. Anti-migrant policies undermine workers’ capacity to stand up for their collective rights and interests by denying workers equal access to the social safety net. We saw this starkly in the Covid-19 pandemic. A 2021 report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) found that migrants without social safety net access were 52% more likely to be unable to safely isolate either themselves or a member of their household.[7]

7. For racialised communities, the Hostile Environment is analogous to a net that might expand at any moment. Black British citizens were deported in the Windrush Scandal. While the Nationality and Borders Bill was going through parliament, the Government made moves to empower itself to strip millions of people of their British citizenship without notice.

8. The Tory government is escalating its attacks on migrants. The cruelty of the Nationality and Borders Act, as well as the flagship Rwanda policy, shows the seriousness of their intent.  In this climate, attempts by the Labour leadership to triangulate will only result in the party and the country being dragged further to the right.

9. Public attitudes towards refugees and migrants are neither simple nor fixed. Community campaigns against deportations serve to demonstrate the human cost of anti-migrant policies as well as providing inspiring examples of resistance and solidarity. Recent well-publicised direct action against immigration raids in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London saw ordinary people mobilise at short notice to defend friends and neighbours.[8] By supporting such struggles locally and nationally, and taking seriously its role as persuader, Labour can begin to change the narrative.

10. “The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”  – Tony Benn, paraphrasing Neal Ascherson. Never forget!

If you are interested in getting involved in the campaign and pushing for this political platform in the party and in the broader labour movement, please come to LCFM’s national gathering on 16 July at Birkbeck. LCFM will host a range of workshops on workers against borders, how to stop deportations, migrants in the organised labour movement, ending immigration detention, and many other topics.

Emma Jones and Dan Davison are activists with the Labour Campaign for Free Movement

[1] Labour Campaign for Free Movement, ‘Labour Conference 2022 must vote for migrants’ rights and free movement – support our motion’: https://www.labourfreemovement.org/labour-conference-2022-must-vote-for-migrants-rights-and-free-movement-support-our-motion/, 22 March 2022.

[2] Labour Campaign for Free Movement, ‘Organising our campaign together: your chance to input at LCFM’s 2022 conference’, https://www.labourfreemovement.org/organising-our-campaign-together-your-chance-to-input-at-lcfms-2022-conference/, 28 June 2022.

[3]   The Migrant Observatory at the University of Oxford, ‘Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview’: https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/migrants-in-the-uk-labour-market-an-overview/, 6 January 2022.

[4] For one in-depth study on immigration from the EU, see: Ros Taylor, ‘Immigration from the EU is not a ‘necessary evil’ and does not drag down wages’: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/05/11/immigration-from-the-eu-is-not-a-necessary-evil-and-does-not-drag-down-wages/, 11 May 2016.

[5] Maya Oppenheim, ‘Security guards at Great Ormond Street Hospital to strike over “unfair” maternity rights’: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/great-ormond-street-hospital-security-guards-strikes-b1994625.html, 17 January 2022; David Walsh, ‘Gig economy workers strike against pay cuts in Middlesbrough and Sunderland’: https://northeastbylines.co.uk/gig-economy-workers-strike-against-pay-cuts-in-middlesbrough-and-sunderland/, 18 February 2022.

[6]   Dan Davison, ‘Why We Need Unions And Free Movement’: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/why-we-need-unions-and-free-movement_uk_5b4e1613e4b08c2f0a5e0f37, 18 July 2018.

[7]   Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, ‘No Recourse To Public Funds is a public health risk and causes destitution’: https://www.jcwi.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=17805c35-d3bc-4251-9ada-6dfdae8dbca6, March 2021.

[8]   Libbby Brooks, ‘‘A special day’: how a Glasgow community halted immigration raid’: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/may/14/a-special-day-how-glasgow-community-halted-immigration-raid, 14 May 2021; BBC News, ‘Protesters block Edinburgh immigration detentions’: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-61342165, 6 May 2022;  Evening Standard, ‘Man released as protesters block immigration raid in Peckham’: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/man-released-protesters-block-immigration-raid-peckham-b1005537.html, 12 June 2022.