Thursday, July 17, 2008

BBC news discovers hidden army of "illegals"

THE BBC news lead-in was alarming. They promised to reveal a criminal network involving immigrants. One thought we might hear frightening news of gangs robbing elderly people on the street or terrorising us in our homes.

As though the daily reports of knife crime weren't worrying enough.

So what did we see?

It seems impoverished men from the rural Punjab are coming to Southall in west London. Just as many others did before them. Only because immigration controls have been been enforced and tightened ever since the 1961 Commonwealth Immigration Act, those coming now are "illegals", smuggled into the country.

Telling us they are known as "Fauji" -soldiers - the TV news scrolled through names of streets around Southall where some of them were said to be living - as though everybody on those streets is part of this hidden army.

Desperate for any kind of work, these men take anything they can get, and are easily exploited by employers who don't care about skills, safety, or legality, so long as they are cheap. We saw a young man waiting on the pavement and being picked up in a van.

So where were the criminals?

The reporters spoke to a man who was apparently doing well out of supplying fake passports and papers. We heard about someone's documents showing them as a resident of Portugal. As for the employers, the BBC confronted a chip shop owner in Southall who employed someone without checking they were 'legal'. Wow. They are really going after the Mr.Big.

As for the 'soldiers', what crime were they guilty of? Mugging pensioners? Breaking into houses or cars? Obtaining money by false pretenses from our generous social security? If you believe the Sun-fed gobshites I sometimes hear people entering Britain are given generous hand outs and houses so that it is hard to see why they would bother going to work, or be dossing down dozen to a room and eating out of a communal pot as the BBC film showed.

But they are illegal being here, and as the reporter told us doing a job that someone else might do. Yeah, right. And if that guy had really been from Portugal, a legal immigrant, he would not be doing a job someone else wanted? Or from Portadown. Or Portsmouth? Assuming that people are really that keen to work in the corner chippies, or as labourers.

The late Sid Bidwell, who used to be Labour MP for Southall, used to recall how as a young man he heard of big punch-ups in Southall high street between Londoners and the Welsh lads whom they accused of coming to steal jobs.

When I came to London in the 1960s there were bunches of men on the pavement in Cricklewood and Camden Town, early in the morning, waiting to be picked up and taken off in the back of a lorry for labouring. If they were lucky they would be dumped down again in the evening in time for a pint or two. Of course, they were legal - Irish immigrants. Whether they had national insurance cards is another matter. They were paid in the pub and if they stood the ganger a drink they might be OK for work next week.

A story I cannot verify is of the driver sent out to pick up a bunch of stout fellows who always stood outside Camden Town tube. They insisted on a 'sub' before they would get in the lorry, so the driver had to go back to the yard and fetch some cash. With a tenner apiece they all got into the back of the lorry. And when it stopped at the lights they all jumped out and ran off.

It was around this time that, working as a labourer (on the cards) on Good-In at a big London factory I naively asked someone why they kept calling me "Mick" or "Pat" when my name was Charlie. "Well", explained the little cockney delivery driver, "you're not black, and you're working as a labourer, so we thought you must be Irish".

Anyway, of the turbaned Sikhs who came from the Punjab in those days, some got work on the buses (there was a famous case in Wolverhampton where they fought for the right to wear the turban. "It was good enough for the Army, it ought to be good enough for the corporation!" said men like my Dad, who had served with them.) Some went into the building trades. And in Southall, they got jobs in factories, and being legal, and on the cards, they proved good trade unionists. I remember the Woolfs rubber factory strike, involving mostly Asian workers (though there were also the two Irish lads whose Sikh landlord let them off rent while they they were on strike because it was a community thing)..

With immigration restrictions and the spread of casualisation, outsourcing and agency work, and phoney self-employment - not just in building, agriculture and catering but warehouses and other jobs, - unscrupulous employers have it made. They can look the other way and pretend they don't know where staff were recruited or if their papers are in order, pretend that safety and protective clothing is not their responsibility, yet hold the threat of exposure, police raids and deportation to keep the workforce subdued.

The Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe bay were one dramatic case. That, and union pressure brought proposals to regulate gangmasters. But the bigger problem remains. There were promises to limit agency labour on the London Olympic sites but I'm told most if not all at present are agency staff. (And the government has resisted calls to bring agency workers' rights up nearer to those enjoyed by permanent staff). Some of the contractors responsible for cleaning the London Underground are using agency workers, and in some cases people hired day-by-day. During the recent RMT cleaners strike it was reported that some workers feared to join the union or strike because they were "illegals". I don't know whether the men told to lie down on the floor of vans taking them in past pickets, or to cross live rails coming in to work, fell into this category.

Around the country you can hear horrific stories of exploitation and deplorable conditions, even of legal migrants, like the Polish slaughtermen found kipping in an old caravan at the back of a west country abattoir, and paying a rip-off rent for that privilege.

But the media, including the BBC, keeps looking at the problem the wrong way round, and presenting the victims of exploitation as thought they were the criminals. On the same day as the Beeb led with the Southall "criminals" story a national newspaper's front-page warned of "riots" coming over immigrants in country areas. Could these be the same areas where farmers were warning they would not be able to get the strawberries in because they were running short of migrant labour?

In this country we have responsible journalism.
Our media are responsible for all kind of things which they'll never admit to.

NB The BBC website version of this story is better than the way it was handled on TV, referring to a network of crime around the Punjabi workers rather than depicting them as criminals. So it might not be the reporters we have to blame.

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