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Working for the clampdown: how detained migrants are coerced into cut-price labour

Over 25,000 people a year are brought to immigration detention centres — some are working for as little as £1 an hour, writes FIDELIS CHEBE and JON BURNETT

WHEN the New Labour government introduced work roles for migrants in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) in the mid-2000s, it laid the foundations for the exploitation of a labour force that is now being pursued with relentless gusto.

While this labour was cynically depicted as a way of providing “opportunities” for detainees, it did not take long for the companies that run most IRCs to realise and take advantage of the opportunities that it actually provided to them.

Such has been the enthusiasm for this captive labour form that those detainees employed as painters, cleaners, kitchen staff, servery workers, greeters, orderlies, litter-pickers, library workers and more have become essential to the upkeep and running of the detention estate itself. With workers only commanding around £1 per hour — a fraction of the wage that other workers may otherwise be legally entitled to — this, of course, is unsurprising.

Every IRC has, or has had, paid employment “opportunities” in Britain. In a Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons report of one IRC in 2017, for example, there were just under 400 people detained at the time of the inspection, and just over 100 work opportunities available. Or to put that another way, potentially around a quarter of those detained at that time could have been involved in work at any given time.

That same year, meanwhile, in another IRC, there were 75 work “opportunities” and the capacity for 410 detainees to be incarcerated. There are over 25,000 people detained for immigration purposes a year in Britain, transformed into a supra-exploitable labour force through the edicts of government policy.

In order to challenge this exploitation of workers, however, it is also necessary to understand the functions and roles of this exploitation itself. Clearly — and despite official suggestions to the contrary — the exploitation of workers has an economic rationale.

This is a workforce that is cheap to hire, and easy to fire, often commanding little sympathy in a context where those detained for immigration purposes are vilified and demonised as a matter of routine. Yet the predatory labour market that has been created in the detention estate is not predicated solely on the extraction of value from workers; it also enforces acquiescence and compliance with the broader regimes central to immigration detention itself.

Central to this is the way that immigration detention forces many detainees to become reliant on these wages, no matter how paltry and no matter how meagre they actually are. Wages can be essential for food items, for example, for those who need to supplement that which is provided — especially those with dietary needs. At the same time, they can be essential to be able to contact lawyers or organisations able to potentially offer support, take up their case and possibly prevent removal.

For some detainees, meanwhile, no matter how exploitative working is, it can nonetheless offer respite from the numbing vagaries of IRC life and the terror that can be embodied by indefinite detention itself. This is a far cry from the vapid government mantras that employment — all employment — is necessarily good for health and well-being. For it is against this backdrop that supra-exploitation in immigration detention has been transformed explicitly into a mechanism of social control.

In some IRCs at least, paid work is only made available for those detainees who are “compliant” with their regimes, and can be withdrawn from those who are not. Meanwhile, according to a Home Office “detention services order” published in 2008, the provision of work should “be directly linked to a level of compliance by the detainee” on two levels: firstly, with the centre operator, and secondly with the (then) UK Border Agency itself.

“Only those detainees who are actively co-operating with the Agency in relation to resolution of their immigration case may be allowed to engage in paid work” the guidance stated. Examples of “non-compliance” include failing to attend interviews, disruptive behaviour and a refusal to complete certain application forms.

This matters. It matters because it creates conditions where, for some immigration detainees at least, engaging in super-exploitative labour may be the only route to accessing desperately needed support. It matters because the market for detainee labour does not just transform migrants into sources of profit; it attempts to force them to acquiesce to regimes that are frequently violent, degrading, distressing and damaging.

Indeed, as is well documented, among the long list of harms engendered in immigration detention, these have included the sexual abuse of detainees by staff; they have included detainees being assaulted and racially abused; they have included substandard medical “care” with detrimental, long-lasting impacts; and in some cases they have included self-harm and loss of life.

Ultimately then, this matters because behind the economic exploitation in immigration detention is a form of economic force: a force that is predicated on securing consent through an insidious form of coercion. And against this backdrop it is consequently vital that we connect the struggles to enforce the rights that detainees are afforded as workers to the struggles to take on the broader issues surrounding immigration detention itself.

Jon Burnett is a lecturer in Criminology at Swansea University and a member of the council of management of the Institute of Race Relations.

Fidelis Chebe is the director of Migrant Action, an organisation which facilitates migrants’ access to justice.

This article draws from evidence presented to the Permanent People’s Tribunal: Hostile Environment on Trial – the working conditions of migrants and refugees

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