Byron, the popular British burger chain, has incurred the wrath of the internet by cooperating with the government to catch staff who were working illegally in the country.
Dozens of illegally working migrants were caught working at the chain by immigration officials in raids across London. Workers were called in for a meeting where they were greeted by “nobody move - we’re immigration” when all had arrived. Although the government has denied that Byron lured them into a trap, this was not the training session workers had expected.
Almost as soon as the news broke, Twitter users were threatening to #BoycottByron for shopping its people to the authorities.
But in reality, this case is part of a problem with the government’s budget approach to managing illegal immigration. The Home Office is under constant pressure to deliver on the government’s tough stance on migration. The heat is on even more now that the department is being run by a new minister in the form of Amber Rudd – her predecessor Theresa May now residing in Downing Street.
The thinking behind the Byron plan is that most migrants living illegally are discovered not at the border, but after they have crossed it. The government may lack the tools to know where they are living or working when a travel or work visa expires. So the strategy is to find ways to expose them when engaged in everyday tasks.
That means managing immigration on an administrative level. The aim, in part, is to discourage illegal migrants by making it harder for them to work.
This means bringing in checks such as requiring people to show proof they are lawfully permitted to reside in the UK when applying for a job, rent a property, open a bank account or obtain a driver’s licence. The idea was that such everyday tasks as using a bank or driving a car would become too difficult to make life in the UK feasible for illegal migrants. Eventually, they would be found out and subsequently removed.
Some workplaces have been targeted more than others by immigration officials as they sought illegal workers. One area receiving particular attention is the food industry, especially takeaways – and so what happened at Byron burgers fits a wider pattern.
DIY document checks
These practices have not escaped criticism – and the Byron case highlights the problem. The Home Office faces significant challenges as it seeks to manage a shrinking budget. Since 2010, the department has been outsourcing much of its work, effectively devolving many of its immigration enforcement tasks to the public. Employers, private landlords, banks, universities and others become the border agents. They do the document checking.
The problem is that these people are not border agents and didn’t sign up to be border agents – even if asked to act like them. They lack the training, the experience and resources to make the full checks available to the Home Office. The Home Office is infinitely better placed to spot a false document than an employer or a bank manager, yet it is they who have to do this important work.
It was local intelligence that made the difference in the Byron case, not a member of staff recognising fraudulent documents. Byron had already checked the residency papers of its staff, including the 35 people found to be working illegally from countries including Albania, Brazil, Egypt and Nepal. The firm conducted full checks on its staff – and had complied with the government’s regulations. However, the it later emerged the paperwork submitted by the workers was fraudulent.
Immigration officials have their difficult work cut out for them. Their lack of resources regrettably leads them to transfer much of the document checking to the wider public. This raises questions about how fit for purpose the reforms are, particularly since fraudsters are ever more sophisticated in their tactics to help illegal workers. Surprise “meetings” might have worked at Byron, but such fishing may not yield much of a catch.
This highlights the need for greater public investment so that immigration officials can conduct proper checks where they are needed, rather than tasks on the cheap.
This presents the prime minister with an important opportunity to strengthen the immigration system rather than continue managing through ineffective gimmicks while hoping for the best. The public deserve nothing less – and want little more.