For undocumented workers, working in exploitative, oppressive conditions is routine

A new report exposes routine risks faced by undocumented migrant workers in UK
6th January 2011: For a vast majority of undocumented workers, there is little or no option, but to continue working in exploitative, dangerous, and oppressive conditions.
A complex set of factors – albeit differing in particular contexts – ensure that vulnerability is consolidated.

These are other hard realities faced by the undocumented workers form a part of a new report on risks undocumented UK workers face.

The report, “The Wages of Fear”, has been prepared by Dr Jon Burnett, a researcher previously working at Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, and Dr David Whyte, Reader in Sociology at the University of Liverpool.

The 39-page report says: `The working lives of undocumented workers betray the realities of flexible working….

`Many refused asylum seekers are pushed into a psychological limbo where their presence has been criminalised, but they will not, or cannot, return to the country they fled from.

`And it is these factors which underpin their precariousness within the labour market.

`The asylum seekers in this report who work `illegally’ risk imprisonment and, ultimately, refused asylum seekers risk deportation. These are risks that the respondents in this study were well aware of.

`The fear of being discovered by immigration authorities acted as a disciplinary mechanism that reaches into all aspects of the labour process: the enforcement of low wages, long working hours and poor safety conditions.

`In stark contrast to government rhetoric about worklife balances and mutual employment consensuses these are the realties of flexible working’.

The report goes on to add: Of the fourteen interviewees, nine had been seriously injured whilst at work. Others who had not been injured had witnessed incidences where their workmates had suffered.

`This study has explored an indeterminate space between health and safety law and immigration law which illustrates a basic contradiction at the heart of the state.

`This is a contradiction of law enforcement that ensures legal health and safety protections for workers are directly undermined by the enforcement of immigration law.

`The protection of the workforce is compromised by tougher immigration enforcement in two ways. First, it impacts upon the relationship between workers and employers at the level of the workplace.

`Tougher responses of the state to immigration act to produce a more compliant workforce, ever fearful that they risk arrest and deportation. Where this fear intensifies, unscrupulous employers are in a strong position to exploit workers and drive down standards of working conditions.

`Indeed, the threat of immigration raids makes it less likely that workers will make demands on their employers for safe working practices and the provision of safety training.

`Second, risks to workers are created because immigration raids, rather than health and safety raids constitute the greatest threat to the existence of a firm employing undocumented workers.

`The UK Health and Safety Executive is woefully overstretched as it is, and for almost a decade now has faced intensified political attacks upon its ability to enforce the law in the ‘regular’ sectors.

`The task of protecting undocumented workers is one that is currently way beyond its means. It is therefore not the Health and Safety Executive but the UK Border Agency that the most exploitative employers fear. Under such conditions, securing compliance with universal health and safety legislation is barely feasible….

`The vulnerability of undocumented workers is structured by a combination of government policies on labour market regulation and border control.

`This political combination has brutal consequences for undocumented workers: there can be no doubt that systematic disregard for basic safety rights has exposed workers to unbearably high thresholds of risk of injury and death; and often severe injuries are hidden by employers and by workers themselves to the point that emergency treatment is eschewed for fear of discovery.
`This pattern of structural subordination cannot be simply understood, as the government would have it, as a consequence of rogue employers who tarnish the reputation of the majority of responsible businesses.

`Neither can it be blamed upon language difficulties or cultural differences. And it certainly cannot be blamed upon the choices made by irregular migrants themselves. Undocumented workers are injured and killed by intensified working conditions, conditions that are re-enforced by a lack of legal protections.

`It is the political strategy followed by state institutions that ensures those legal protections are not upheld and in turn are systematically undermined by this brutal combination of labour market and immigration policy.

`We cannot know whether the consequences of this policy are intended or unintended by its architects. But this report has begun to show how the origins of the violent subordination and victimisation of this section of the workforce can be found in the careful planning and execution of government policy’.

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