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I’ve worked in precarious jobs for more than 10 years – here’s what unions should do to support migrant workers

Protesters with placards
Migrant workers protesting outside Euston Station in London, October 2022. Vuk Valcic/Alamy

As I rush to clean everything before the sink overfills with plates and pans, I am confronted, yet again, with the brutality of my working conditions. My feet and legs throb and ache from sole to calf; I can feel the onset of cramps. But the chef won’t be able to work unless I clean these pans.

The clatter of plates and screaming of orders around me have become a constant, thumping backdrop. The only noise I pay attention to is the “beep” of the service elevator next to me – its door opens to reveal an explosion of leftovers, hastily thrown in by the upstairs waiters amid dirty napkins and cutlery.

To me, the beep has come to resemble a form of torture: every new sound signals more pressure, less space, more to catch up on. I haven’t taken a break since I started working 11 hours ago. There are at least three more hours to go.

The cost of the uneaten food is more than I make each day. I wonder if the customers have considered the pain that goes into the food they enjoy upstairs, just above our heads.

Intensely precarious working conditions

As a migrant worker since my arrival to the UK in 2011 and as a trade union organiser since 2013, I was already aware of the difficulties facing migrant workers who seek to challenge exploitation, both individually and collectively. To further understand these barriers, I took on (and analysed) jobs in a number of different precarious workplaces in Glasgow between 2017 and 2021, including as a kitchen porter in the Mediterranean restaurant in central Glasgow described above.

While some politicians and commentators rage against UK immigration levels, the fact that its economy does not simply rely on migrant labour but is, in my view, purposely designed to attract and exploit it, is rarely mentioned. Ever since the days of empire, the UK has recruited migrant workers to staff the most precarious and labour-intensive occupations, in line with the demands of the economy. Regardless of whether they are from former colonies, European, documented or undocumented, migrants form an inseparable part of the nation’s economic infrastructure.

Making up about 18% of the UK’s total labour force, migrant workers are overrepresented in sectors such as factories, food manufacturing, hospitality and logistics. These are also the occupations that are the most likely to be characterised by intensely precarious working conditions, such as agency work or zero-hours contracts, punitive reductions of hours, unsociable shifts, and a lack of trade union representation.

Protesters with a banner outside town hall
Food delivery riders who are members of the IWGB trade union protest for free and safe parking, November 2021. Mark Kerrison/Alamy

On top of precarious employment, migrant workers face other barriers that are connected to the UK’s hostile environment policies, such as a lack of access to benefits. This means that the lives of many migrant workers in the UK are in a state of constant insecurity with regard to employment, income, accommodation and even food.

Whether their job is underpinned by a zero-hours contract, an online platform, an employment agency, or more “informal” and unregulated working arrangements, the overarching experience is one of intense insecurity and individualisation.

In these precarious workplaces, the pressure to perform is omnipresent. Watching colleagues being arbitrarily dismissed due to a lack of (over)exertion or for making trivial mistakes makes you realise that you are alone, exposed and vulnerable to the demands of your employer. Your relationships with your superiors and your personal abilities to push yourself are the only substitutes for contractual safety.

‘I’ve only seen a union once’

This isolation is worsened by the near-total non-existence of unions in precarious workplaces, despite official pronouncements that claim to support migrant workers. Since 2011, I have worked in more than 20 different locations in the hospitality, manufacturing and logistics sectors – I have only seen a union once, and it was oriented towards the permanent staff.

Many migrants I met weren’t even sure whether they could join unions as foreigners. And in every workplace I entered, the word “strike” was only uttered as a joke. Then, they dismissed the prospect. In a life saturated by insecurity, thinking of change is a luxury.

This is not to say that unions haven’t made attempts. But, due to the transient and insecure nature of precarious employment, the stability and trust between colleagues and between workers and union organisers that is required to build meaningful campaigns are simply not there.

Read more: COVID heroes left behind: the 'invisible' women struggling to make ends meet

Instead, a vicious cycle is created where precarious conditions breed precarious mindsets – an acceptance of insecure and low pay, poor working conditions and abuse. Indeed, it has been argued that such working conditions act as forces of socialisation: they teach migrant workers what to expect and how to conduct themselves.

This, when combined with migration controls such as being dependent on an employer to remain in the country, lack of access to information and language barriers, renders migrant workers even more vulnerable and exploitable.

A new breed of social centre

I believe a crucial element of how unions and social movements can counteract the debilitating effects of precarity is to encourage and materially support the creation of new social centres within neighbourhoods. This is already happening, both formally and informally, in North America and parts of Europe, where social movements have set up physical community spaces that allow migrant and other precarious populations to congregate and organise.

These are not top-down initiatives but horizontal structures managed by workers with an understanding of the particularities associated with being an immigrant. But they need to be connected to cross-workplace organising structures, such as the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain’s Couriers and Logistics Branch.

Read more: 'I’m always delivering food while hungry': how undocumented migrants find work as substitute couriers in the UK

The value of such spaces is to allow workers who experience high degrees of transience (such as couriers or agency workers) to connect with each other, and with unions, in order to collectively organise to challenge their labour conditions.

This new breed of social centre could also address the interrelated factors that maintain migrant precarity, such as migration restrictions and housing. They would allow migrant workers to access a safe, supportive space outside of the workplace in their own time. Above all, they would be physical examples that grassroots support is there – and that they are not alone.

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