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Exploitation in ‘ethnic enclaves’: Why immigration enforcement is not the answer

By Don Flynn, Migrants’ Rights Network, United Kingdom

Studies show that 70% of immigration enforcement action directed against businesses takes place in ethnic minority neigbourhoods. In this article Don Flynn discusses how ethnicity is a factor in immigration enforcement activity while presenting the repercussions.

Seventy percent of immigration enforcement action directed against businesses takes place in ethnic minority neighbourhoods. This is a recipe for perpetuating racism and exploitation – not defeating it. If you take a map of almost anywhere in the UK and plot into all the evidence of immigration raids on business premises which UKVI helpfully provides two things emerge very clearly.

The first of these is the tendency for this enforcement activity to cluster in and around neighbourhoods where ethnic minorities are densest. The second comes from looking at the names of the businesses which have had civil penalty fines imposes on them. In the vast majority of cases the fact of their ethnicity is the critical factor.

Looking at London and the South East, Home Office data shows a total of 656 businesses being hit with civil penalty charges for employing staff not permitted to work under the immigration rules between the summer of 2013 and the middle of last year. These fines are currently imposed at the rate of £20,000 for each worker found at the business. The names of restaurants, takeaways, hairdressers, grocery shops, building companies, clearly identifiable as ethnic minority businesses, don’t just predominate but do so overwhelmingly.

The implications of this are absolutely clear: in this important area where immigration rules are strictly enforced the task is led, shaped and directed towards the policing of ethnic minority enclaves. Why?

As great cities across the world are showing us, these ethnic enclaves are not marginal to the functioning of the modern metropolis, but a critical part of its political economy

“It’s where the ‘illegals’ are….”

The answer from the enforcement authorities is that they target ethnic minority businesses because that is where intelligence tells us the ‘illegal’ workers are concentrated. In truth this is not so much a matter of organisational intelligence – the product of investigation, research and analysis – but rather brute, rudimentary ‘commonsense’. Everything we think we know about those communities which are pushed into niche existences within bigger society tells us that daily life is a matter of constant ducking and diving, dodging and weaving. If rules are being broken anywhere head down to your local high street and rummage through the paperwork of whatever Indian, Nigerian or Colombian business is trading there and there’s good chance of finding some juicy, low hanging fruit.

Exploitation easily takes root in employer and employee relationships

A new book by Alice Bloch and Sonia McKay – two long-time researchers into issues around migration and employment – takes us a bit further than the platitudes of ‘commonsense’ when it comes to understanding the ethnic enclaves at the sharp end of immigration enforcement. Living on the Margins is a study of three of those communities where the task of earning a living brings people right up against authority.

Bangladeshi, Chinese and Turkish/Kurdish businesses operate on high streets across the country, open all hours and providing goods and services, like a restaurant meal, that are suggestive of what luxury might be like to cash-strapped households everywhere. They were founded by earlier generations of newcomers with the critically important migrant skill of sniffing out opportunities for a livelihood in sectors and segments where direct competition with natives was minimised and the possibility of utilising the scarce resources available to the community could be optimised.

Hankering for goods and services

A significant part of these scarce resources was labour in the form of a workforce skilled enough to produce goods or services which customers hankered for – typically foreign cuisines, beauty products or the convenience of shopping late night. With business model operating on the principles of a wing-and-a-prayer the owners needed their workers to be cheap and casual. Taking staff on for busy days and sending them home when there was no trade has been a part of the survival plan for enterprises in the ethnic enclaves from the beginning.

Bloch and McKay give an authoritative account of how the undocumented migrant emerged as the exemplar of the type of worker who could operate in these circumstances. The precariousness of their existences strips them of any hope of earning living other than the one that meets daily expenses for food and a bed for the night, stretching at most to a small surplus which they could send to family back home. The authors find men and women who have lived in this country for many years – in some instances for a decade or more – and who continue to cling on for no better reason than the fact that all their options are so bleak.

In these circumstances life in ethnic enclave business hinges on small differences. A ‘good’ job becomes one in which you can work with your ethnic fellows and the friendships that might be possible there. The opportunity to add skills to your repertoire – the kitchen porter learning to prepare vegetables and move towards the status of the chef – is highly valued and the worker will invest time and effort into fostering relations that prove they are dependable and can be trusted with higher grade tasks.

Exploitation and risk

Exploitation easily takes root in employer and employee relationships. The business owner calculates the risk of taking someone on without papers and decides in favour when the advantages to be got from working someone longer hours at low wage rates outweighs the chance that they will be raided and fined. This becomes a more compelling option when the period of the hire is brief such as when a large order needs to be completed or because of a seasonal increase in trade; all of which reinforces the requirement that the worker be dismissable at the shortest of notice.

This treatment is deplorable, but Bloch and McKay’s extensive conversations with employers gives the sense that they are also working in a system that stacks the odds against their long-term security and welfare. Racism was the force that shaped the original ethnic enclaves, creating the limited spaces in towns and cities where they were permitted to live and work. And redoubled measures to hunt down the undocumented plays a role in closing down the faint opportunities that the enclave might find a way to collectively improve its lot.

Raids and crippling penalties

This is the reason why it is a grave error to view these neighbourhoods as a regrettable mistakes which we should now seek to eliminate through the doubling up of immigration raids and the imposition of crippling civil penalties. As great cities across the world are showing us, these ethnic enclaves are not marginal to the functioning of the modern metropolis, but a critical part of its political economy. They allow economic activity to go on around the clock, providing the sort of services which wealthy segments take for granted as they go about their more congenial working days. It may not be the only way to organise society and many will think it is not the best, but for the last half century cities in nations with liberal market economies have used inequality to drive dynamic growth. Ethnic enclaves play their part in this grim set-up, bringing the least equal people into the heart of the beast and providing them with something that looks like a strategy for survival.

Bloch and McKay’s study reminds us that just above the exploited workers there are businesses which have themselves been nurtured by denial of opportunity to people a generation back. They have learned to survive by making use of the wretched insecurity of co-nationals, sometimes making a good profit out it, but as often as not merely limping through each day by the skin of their teeth. . Immigration enforcement even when heavily concentrated on these groups will never eradicate the hardship and exploitation this system entails. On the contrary, it only adds to the mix of risk and insecurities which made the insecure and vulnerable into the exploited in the first place.

This article was initially published on Migrants’ Rights Network’s Blog

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