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THIS summer, I had the privilege of meeting Unison member Michael Braithwaite. Michael was one of the Windrush generation who as the result of a single security check at work — something he’d done many times before — found himself out of a job, caught up in a ridiculous and illogical government policy that almost destroyed his life.
Hearing from Michael about the suffering he endured was both shocking and upsetting. The toxic debates on immigration in this country have had a devastating effect on ordinary workers — people like Michael, who works as a special needs teaching assistant.
It was instantly clear to me why he was drawn to this work 15 years ago and why he’s so popular with those he’s worked alongside and taught.
For Michael, his work was his passion, his second home, and he took great joy in the achievements of the children he supported.
He told me that he got great pleasure out of even little results with the children he worked with. It was something he really enjoyed and it gave him self-esteem. He said working with children was one of the greatest joys in the world. It was a feeling that couldn’t be bought.
In 2016, Michael’s school’s new HR department asked him to renew a standard security check for anyone seeking to work with children or vulnerable adults. But then Michael was told that he also required a biometric card to show he was eligible to work in Britain.
Like everyone else of the Windrush generation, he hadn’t foreseen the need to prove a right he thought he had. Michael came to Britain at the age of nine to join his parents. His father had fought for the British army during World War II and was then employed by the Royal Mail. His mother worked for the NHS. Michael had lived in Britain for over 50 years, working and paying his taxes.
Yet this was just the start of a Kafkaesque nightmare for Michael. In order to confirm his status, the Home Office eventually asked him to produce evidence for every year of his life spent in Britain, stretching back to 1974. While he was attempting to gather this evidence, he lost his job.
Michael’s experience isn’t unique to the Windrush generation. Many of Unison’s migrant worker members have long experienced the insecurity and anxiety of having their lives, both at work and at home, affected by constantly changing immigration rules.
These tangled procedures reach into the NHS, local government services, schools, colleges and universities. They force nurses, doctors, administrators, teachers and private landlords into becoming de facto immigration officers.
The government has even made being an undocumented worker a criminal offence, giving the worst of employers even more power to discriminate and exploit.
No wonder millions of EU citizens living and working in Britain are anxious about how they will be treated in the years to come and why so many of them have already left.
Migrant workers in this country are increasingly treated like second-class citizens. Non-EU migrant workers already have to pay thousands of pounds to access healthcare.
The government says this ensures that they make a fair contribution, even though they already contribute, as we all do, by working and paying taxes.
This is particularly outrageous in the case of migrants working in the NHS. It seems grossly unfair that staff who have been recruited to fill shortages and who pay taxes and national insurance, are being asked to pay an inordinate amount of money upfront so that they can access a service they help provide.
Added to this is the fact that the annual charge is due to go up to £400 per person later this year, which would mean that a nurse applying to come and work here would have to find £1,200, plus their visa fees, on top of the cost of their registration fees.
One nurse told me she is already trying to save £150 every month, by working more overtime, in order to pay the NHS surcharge before her visa renewal in 2020. She calculates it would cost her almost £2,000 altogether. This is money she cannot use to buy food, pay rent or the bills.
Unison has always been clear — when times are tough, we need good local public services more than ever, publicly owned and properly funded. We rely on people from all different races, religion and backgrounds to deliver them.
This is why at this year’s Trades Union Congress in Manchester, Unison is leading a call for justice for the Windrush generation, an end to the government’s “hostile environment” policy and for an independent inquiry into its implementation.
When the SS Windrush docked at Tilbury 70 years ago, the people who disembarked transformed the trade union movement. They met the racism and the cold winters alike with great courage and dignity. They also brought a determination to tackle discrimination and exploitation in the workplace. Unison, a union built with equality at its heart, is part of this legacy.
Now the trade union movement must challenge the inhumane treatment faced by Commonwealth citizens, many of whom have been failed at the very point they should have been looking forward to a well-earned retirement.
Unison believes that, in the tough times ahead, we must stand together as workers and oppose those who would use racism and fear to divide us.
Dave Prentis is general secretary of Unison.
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