Gabriella Alberti and Dima Barakat Chami report on this significant change to Home Office rules brought about by pressure from UCU, especially from members of UCU University of Leeds branch
On Thursday the 12th of July our General Secretary informed all union members that our UCU campaign for the right to strike of international staff under visa has been won. According to the guidance and immigration rules for migrant workers (under the tier 2 and 5 immigration routes) any staff dependent on a working visa who would incur more than 10 non-consecutive days of unpaid leave (thus including legal strike action) per calendar year would risk the possibility to be reported by their employer to the Home Office. This would effectively put her/his and their family’s right to reside in the UK at risk. It is thus not impossible to imagine how such a punitive and unequal law would discourage migrant workers from joining strike action beyond the symbolic day or two. In this sense we are very proud that our longest ever strike in higher education has acted not only as a terrain to test such unequal treatment on a fundamental democratic right, but ultimately also as springboard for change. By revealing an obvious injustice in the system, the strike triggered a wave of outrage that pushed the UK Parliament and the Home Secretary to be held accountable and change the law regulating unpaid leave for any worker on visa. How did we get to this important outcome in a short period of time?
Initiated through lay members involved in the industrial action in the midst of our great 2018 strike over pension, lamenting their frustration and constraints in participating and their sense of injustice, in the space of a few months individual members, local branches, activists and supporters across the country have mobilised and lobbied to make this change possible. In particular the change consists in including industrial action among the exception that will not be counted against the maximum threshold of unpaid leave.
Sajid Javid the Home Secreary declared in his statement last Thursday:
“It is not the Government’s policy to prevent migrant workers from engaging in legal strike action; and, to date, I am not aware of any case where a migrant worker has had their leave curtailed, or been removed, as a result of having engaged in legal industrial action. However, to put the matter beyond doubt, I will be making changes to the guidance and Immigration Rules for migrant workers (under the Tier 2 and 5 immigration routes) and their sponsors. The specific change will add legal strike action to the list of exceptions to the rule on absences from employment without pay for migrant workers. It will make clear that there will be no immigration consequences for any migrant worker who takes part in legal strike action in the same way that a migrant worker is not disadvantaged if they take maternity or paternity leave.”
A battle born in the HE sector will now bear its fruits and realise all migrants for fear of exercising their collective right beyond our sector and across all industries and sectors.
This is a major victory for the union movement and all those who care about equality and understand the importance of equal access to collective rights such as the right to participate in industrial action and freedom of association (guaranteed under various pieces of EU and International law), which are already highly constrained by the restricting legislation on strikes such as the Trade Union Bill, and growing employers’ hostility to trade unions in the UK. A variety of actors have contributed to this important and fast result, which shows the importance of articulating local and national battles if we want to win our campaigns.
As recalled by Sally Hunt in this national campaign, both the actions of the many individuals who have lobbied their MPs and put pressure on political representatives in Westminster and the support from key opposition politicians such as John McDonnell who has played a crucial role in heightening public awareness and visibility of the topic have played a central role to achieving victory. Being one of the branch that has contributed to the campaign, by submitting a motion to congress, organising a legal session with an immigration lawyer and rising the issue with colleagues beyond the union, and with the executive management at the Equality and Inclusion committee of the university, we also want to emphasise the importance of the activity of local branches in developing the grassroot movement and influence that bring about social and political change.
During our legal workshop at Leeds we also learned that the attack on the right to strike is only one element of the evil architecture of the ‘hostile environment’ against our fellow internationals: not only living in an atmosphere of anxiety and fear during exceptional periods of action such as strikes, but in their everyday life as researchers, teachers and academics they are massively constrained by the current Home Office rules in their capacity to travel and be away from the UK (including for research and conferences!) for longer than 180 days.
The current rules indeed establish that the Home Office can arbitrarily pick up any 180 out of any calendar year when it comes for the migrant to apply for their indefinite leave to remain, thus jeopardising their possibility to regularise and extend their stay in the UK (and the rights of their dependant family members). We believe that, although impacting on very different areas of work, the underlying logic of the hostile environment is the same as the one that established the limitation to the right to strike: constraining people mobility and their individual and collective freedoms to keep them subjugated and docile in a climate of fear where their employment is constantly dependent on the authority and revocable. The 180 days rule brings with it the contradictory outcome to decrease migrants’ ability to do their job well, their opportunities for training and development, and not least, their very academic freedom. This is at least what we see in the field of HE but of course the principle of keeping workers under a constrained mobility regime and in a constant status of insecurity in terms of their right to reside tight to the continuation of their employment, is a principle that marks immigration controls across all sectors. At least now these same workers will feel that they are on equal foot with their peers when it comes to the right to voice concerns and participate in lawful industrial action and any future action related to our terms and conditions of employment, including, the effects of this oppressive immigration regime.
We are really proud that our union and its members have contributed to a change in the law that will deliver important result for all migrant worker in the country. This is however only one aspect of the hostile environment and our longer term and wider scope battle against the unfairness of the immigration regime on our campuses and beyond can only be reinvigorate and grow as a result of this victory. But there is still so much to do, from the Monitoring of staff and students (link to Unis Resist Border Controls survey), to the consequences of Brexit, Prevent, and heads up against everyday acts of racism and xenophobia that occure in our workplaces, let alone the institutional racism that make BAME workers still disadvantage at the point of recruitment and progression.
This is a critical political moment where the Hostile Environment is finally under greater public scrutiny and where migrant workers from all sides can join in together to resist the Point based system and the inequality that results from it.
We have held the structures of power accountable, and we have won! We view this victory as an affirmation that collective action works.
United we stand! Onwards with our migrant equality agenda, in Leeds and everywhere.
Gabriella Alberti (equality officer 2017-18) and Dima Barakat Chami (equality officer 2018-19)