The right to work for asylum seekers

Argus title : Let asylum seekers work

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has been in Brighton this week. Most of its deliberations have focussed upon ways of defending workers’ rights, wages and conditions in the face of recession – and on influencing the Brown government to change direction.

However, the TUC has never confined its interest solely to UK workers’ rights. It is also concerned about the rights of those who are unable to work – and is committed to international solidarity with trade unionists abroad.

The trade unions’ record in this regard has not always been heroic. At times, in the past, they seemed less concerned about workers’ rights than about protecting the limited work-place privileges of white male workers against the incursions of women and immigrants. However, those days are long gone. The TUC is at its best when it flexes its muscle to defend those who are unable to protect themselves from injustice. It has done so this week.

On Wednesday, at a meeting in Brighton’s Friends’ Meeting House, Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC joined with individual leaders of many of the UK’s major trade unions to support the Refugee Council’s national campaign to allow asylum seekers in the UK to work.

Currently, the vast majority of asylum seekers are forbidden to work – despite the fact that many have no immediate prospect of returning home. Those whose applications for asylum are still in progress are forced to live on benefits which are set at just 70% of the level of Income Support. Those who have been refused it, receive nothing even though in many cases the government accepts their countries are too dangerous for them to return. Individuals are left in a state of limbo, with no recourse to benefits or services provided through public funds.

At Wednesday’s meeting – which was jointly organised by the Refugee Council and Brighton Voices in Exile – trade unionists pledged themselves and their unions to campaign against this injustice.

A spokesperson from the Refugee Council said: “These are people who fled persecution in their own countries looking for a place of safety….they want to work, support themselves and their families, pay taxes, and contribute to the economy. But they are being denied these opportunities. Instead they are forced to live on handouts…or are denied support altogether and end up destitute. It is unhumane to treat people in this way and it makes no economic sense.”

Helen Connor, of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said: “The right to work is a fundamental right – one the trade unions have founght for through the centuries throughout the world.”

She criticised the myths that fuel media attacks, saying: “Asylum seekers are often referred to as economic migrants or illegal immigrants, which is very misleading to say the least. They have not come to the UK for economic reasons, neither are they here illegally. They have been driven from their homelands by persecution, conflict and human rights abuses They are exercising a legal right in making a claim for asylum – a human right we all share.”

The Refugee Council stresses that the majority of asylum seekers have skills and a high level of education. Some have been employed as journalists and civil servants in their home countries. Many are qualified nurses, teachers and academics. There are, for example, 1,500 refugee teachers in England – and 1,100 medically qualified refugees on the British Medical Association database. The Refugee Council points out that while it costs £250,000 to train a new doctor, it takes a mere £10,000 to prepare a qualified doctor from abroad to practise in the UK.

Donna Covey, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council said:

“We know asylum seekers want to work. Many are highly qualified and had good jobs in their home countries, and are desperate to contribute to the country that has taken them in. It is an outrage that they are left to rely on handouts from the state when they have so much to offer this country.”

Tendai is an example of this. She is Zimbabwean asylum seeker who lives in Brighton with her 2 children. She told the meeting:

“I worked as a Chief Cash Controller for a company in Zimbabwe until I began to have problems because of my political opinions. This forced me to flee leaving my one year old son. I arrived in 2001 to seek asylum and it has not been what I expected. I am able and happy to work and contribute to the British economy but I am not allowed, and I am being forced to live on handouts.”

She added:

“I do really appreciate the protection given to me by this country, which of course my country failed to give me. But what was taken from me is my right to work…Because of this my confidence is taken away, I am deskilled and it has an effect on my children and family life”.

She explained movingly that though she wishes to marry, she is prevented from doing so by government regulations.

The meeting heard that many refugees have become refugees because of their trade union activities. Luka Phiri, also a Zimbabwean, is a skilled toolmaker in his home country, trusted and relied upon by his employer. He told the meeting that the proudest achievement of his career was to design and build a die-casting smelting furnace. He said: “The furnace worked perfectly and the company had to make three more furnaces to sell to other companies. My ambition was simply to accomplish something as a family man and share my valuable knowledge and special skills with young people training to be engineers and toolmakers.”

Robert Mugabe’s government put paid to that dream. Luka was a trade unionist and became regional secretary of the Engineering Trade Union of Zimbabwe. In 2003, as the country began to slide towards anarchy, he was forced to leave because of his opposition to the government.

He said: “When I came to this country I thought it would be easy for me to integrate, since I come from a Commonwealth country. But my asylum case has not been an easy road. My case has been refused and I do not know what the future holds for me in the UK.

“The Home Office has said I cannot work. That deprives me of a lot of things as a human being – especially my dignity. But this policy has meant that the great skills I brought with me to this country have become rusty over the past 5 and a half years. Not only is this a tragedy for me, and wasted potential for the UK economy – it is a disaster for my country.”

He ended poignantly: “When it is safe, I would like to return to Zimbabwe to help rebuild my great nation and recover my shattered dreams and ambitions. How can I do that if I have lost my skills and work experience?”

Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, was evidently much moved by what he had heard and pledged his full support. He said:

“Forcing often highly skilled, highly trained individuals to sit idle for considerable periods of time is not only a personal tragedy for them but is also a huge loss to the UK economy, which is missing out on their many talents. The Government must think again and change the rules so that asylum seekers are allowed to work….”

The TUC and Refugee Council will now be working together to persuade the government to reinstate the right to work. Given the passion and deep commitment expressed at the meeting, it is hard to imagine they will fail.

Anyone wishing to help the campaign should contact the Refugee Council on 0207 3466700 or visit the website at Trade unionists can email Wilf Sullivan, TUC Race Equality Officer at Brighton Voices in Exile can be contacted on 01273-328598.

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