- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Wednesday, 17 September 2014
- Written by Kat Burdon-Manley
To comprehend trends of causality in migration flow it is essential that international power dynamics and geopolitical relations also be considered. No more is this tendency exemplified than in recent political developments in Israel and Gaza, Iraq and Syria. This essay does not seek to address the complexities of sectarian divisions, resulting from intervention, oppression and disenfranchisement of minorities in areas of conflict or offer solutions, but merely to comment on the current trends of migration flow and open a dialogue on the causes of migration, the injustice of borders, and establish concrete proposals to tackle anti-immigration rhetoric. This piece will make up part of a study into the causes of migration. The introductory piece will concentrate on the current trends of migration, detention and borders, the second will look at the correlation between the rise of neoliberalism, inequality and migration, while the third will look in more detail at the history of immigration and the movement.
Borders are designed to control workers in the interest of capitalist accumulation. The most successful way to defeat low pay and conditions is to unite and organise against exploitative employers. Refugees are protected by international laws, designed to ensure that those who are at risk of persecution are able to request that their status is recognised in safe countries. However, what we see instead is 1300 migrants sleeping rough in Calais, physical borders and surveillance thrown up when refugees try to access countries to claim asylum, arbitrary deals made between countries for the purpose of obstructing migration flows, and the prison-like detention facilities designed to marginalise the most vulnerable people.
In 2013 the International Organisation for Migration recorded 2360 deaths of people trying to cross borders worldwide. Hundreds of people have died trying to cross in to Europe this year alone and over two decades it is estimated that 20 thousand people died trying to enter the European Union, at the southern border.
Displacement of people on a global scale and the human cost
Hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza have been displaced by the recent unilateral military offensive by Israel, with over two thousand civilians murdered, including over 500 children, and 100 thousand people have lost their homes. While bodies were piling up in Gaza, vessels containing military arms from the United States continued to pour in to Israel, facilitating, aiding and abetting the continuation of violence and oppression.
Iraq is in crisis, with the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) and the displacement of tens of thousands Yazidis, who were left stranded on a mountain in Sinjar. Sectarian divisions can be explained by US imperialist intervention and occupation, the oppressive and repressive regime of Nouri al-Maliki, and the disenfranchisement and marginalisation of the Sunni population. The failure to bring about freedom, democracy and lasting peace in the region has become all too clear. Extremism, factional fighting, huge mobilisations and demonstrations have all made up the landscape of Iraq throughout and after occupation. Over a million people lost their lives in Iraq, including children, as a result of US and UK intervention and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.
The revolution in Syria, which was part of a wave of uprisings in the Middle East, is in its fourth year. There is much to say about the ongoing uprising against Bashar Al- Assad’s regime, a brutal dictator who is responsible for the deaths of over 190 thousand civilians. Millions of refugees have fled Syria, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and 90% of those who remain in rebel held areas are unemployed and have highly restricted access to basic human amenities (see Without Borders, Doctors Without Borders newsletter).
Syrian refugees are the main migration group in to Greece, and Eritrean refugees the main group into Italy. The UN have been put under pressure to establish external processing facilities to determine whether a person claiming asylum is doing so ‘legitimately’ before accessing safe passage to Europe. Processing would take place in Egypt, Libya and Sudan, all of which have unacceptable human rights records. In 2012 it was reported that Eritrean detainees in Egyptian prisons and detentions centres were deported back to Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Greek government have called for tougher border controls, managed by an international task force, with external access routes to asylum.
International Borders and areas of containment
The campaign group Human Rights Watch is opposed to external refugee processing facilities because of the human rights records of the countries where refugees would be processed, namely, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. Libya is unstable, with warring militia groups controlling large parts of the country, and a weak military and police force. If the UN were to administer refugee processing facilities in Libya, refugees would be put at increased risk to their safety. It is suspected that 4000-6000 refugees are being held in detention centres across Libya at any one time. The Ministry of Interior runs a number of detention facilities, concentrated in the south around Kufra and Sabha, but many more are run by militia groups and these are known as katibas. The conditions in the detention centres are inhumane; there is overcrowding and insufficient access to drinking water while there is evidence to suggest that detainees in migrant centres in Sabha have been systematically tortured. Egyptian officials have been complicit in the trafficking of Eritrean refugees on the Sinai, notably the military and the police force turning a blind eye to trafficking. Many people die in the Sinai, by falling off trucks and of dehydration.
The main port in Europe for migration from North Africa is Lampedusa which is located 205km from Sicily and 167km from Tunisia. The number of migrants arriving in to Lampedusa by boat was 190,425 between 2001 and 2011 and it is estimated that 60% of these boats come from Libya. The journey between Libya and Italy should take approximately 27 hours, but many migrants spend days at sea, because the boats are steered and navigated by a refugee who is given a free place on the boat in return for taking responsibility for the vessel. Inexperienced refugees, desperate to avoid the extortionate trafficking fees, volunteer to steer the overcrowded boats, so it’s no wonder many vessels either fail to complete the journey to Italy, end up in Tunisia, capsize, or end up being picked up by the Libyan or Tunisian authorities. If refugees are picked up by the Libyan authorities they are taken to the detention centres.
The Italian government has been notorious for making deals with the Libyan authorities, including with Muammar Gaddafi’s government and the Transitional National Council after the fall of Gaddafi, to control migration flows. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has condemned the Italian government’s policy of pushing back migrants at sea by intercepting boats in international waters and diverting them back to Libya. The pact between the Italian government and the Gaddafi regime included financial and technical support to the regime, including offering Italian scholarships to Libyan students, army pensions to soldiers serving in Libya and the construction of a radar system on the Libyan borders.
The agreement entered into by Italy and Libya during Gaddafi’s period in office was the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation, which was signed by the two states in 2008. As a result of the agreement irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers were subjected to prolonged detention, human rights abuses and torture by the Libyan authorities and Libya suspended the limited operations of the UNHCR. The European Union is a signatory to the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, mandating the Union to observe the principle of non-refoulement, therefore refugees should not be sent back to a country where there is a risk of persecution or harm.
This is the first time the UN has agreed to consider external processing facilities. Although the UN has been critical of such practices, it is not the first time they have administered containment areas within the borders of unsafe countries, the UN agency UNHCR administered areas of containment within the borders of Bosnia in the mid 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of people needed protection when internal conflict was rife and ethnically based militias and other forces threatened their safety. The policy of containing people within the borders of unsafe and volatile countries threatens the principle of asylum, yet the west intervened in Bosnia to control population movements. The containment areas were set up ostensibly to protect local people from the threat of ethnic cleansing, but they quickly became known as ‘death camps’ in colloquial Bosnian parlance (Refugees in a Global Era, Philip Marfleet, p.202). When the security of containment areas breaks down, the people are left at the mercy of attacking forces.
Israeli border policy is to detain ‘infiltrators’ for up to a year, as it does not distinguish between refugees, undocumented migrants and those intending to harm Israel’s security. Over 40 thousand Eritrean migrants entered Israel between 2006 and 2012, which has since been reduced to zero. Israel constructed a 240km fence along the Sinai and built a 10 thousand person detention centre in Negev. African migrants in Tel Aviv took part in demonstrations over several days to protest against these unjust laws and the UNHCR made a statement that the incarceration of migrants caused ‘harm and suffering’ and was not in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a signatory. Israel also operates ‘push-back’ tactics such as the use of teargas, stun grenades and warning shots to discourage migrants from crossing the border, and has reached agreements with unspecified African countries to deport irregular migrants including offering grants to migrants to voluntarily leave Israel. Human Rights Watch are due to make a report on 16th Sept 2014 about Israel’s policy of indefinite detention of migrants, which acts as a deterrent for people seeking asylum.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are concentrated in to refugee camps under the control of the police and intelligence services and are prohibited from acquiring Lebanese citizenship. The Palestinian refugees are stateless and are unable to take part in the political decision-making of Lebanon, even though policy affects their lives. The majority of the Palestinian refugees have lived in Lebanon since 1948 or were born in the refugee camps. Palestinian refugees do not have the same rights to employment as Lebanese citizens, and are unable to access over 70 professions in the labour market. Children born in to the camps are born stateless.
Syrian refugees are migrating in vast quantities. Since the uprising in 2011 approximately 2.8 million refugees have fled Syria. It is thought that about 760 thousand Syrian refugees are now living in Turkey, in the overcrowded but well stocked camps in Kilis and Reyhanli. Syrian refugees in Turkey are not allowed to work.
The number of Syrian refugees is low in the UK, only 460 asylum claims were made in the first quarter of 2014 and only 50 refugees have been permitted entry under the UN initiative, the Syrian Vulnerable Person Relocation Scheme. Many Syrian refugees rely on people traffickers, but this option is expensive, so only those who have the means to pay thousands of pounds access this service. The majority of people live in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
The UNHCR published a document, appealing to states to provide more than ‘financial, economic and technical support’ to the displaced people of Syria and calling for their admission and humanitarian protection. Approximately 6.5 million displaced people remain in Syria, in a pre-revolution population of 20 million people. The UN programme of resettlement aims to re-home 30 thousand refugees by the end of 2014 (1.3% of the Syrian Refugees and 0.5% of the internally displaced people). The UK government offered a meagre 500 places, and only 50 refugees have been resettled in to the UK so far. The deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said ‘the UK will be providing refuge to some of the most vulnerable refugees’, such as women particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. The intake of refugees in Egypt is 132,849, Iraq 217,144, Jordan, 593,186, Lebanon, 844,021 and Turkey, 580,542 (although this has since increased, see: The Guardian, Wednesday 29 January, 2014).
There is a particular type of vulnerability that women face compared to men during times of war and forced migration. The Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN) was borne out of the failure of the Kosovo government to recognise sexual violence committed against women during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo when, according to Human Rights Watch, 20 thousand women were raped. KWN conducted a Kosovo-wide survey which revealed that 43% of participant’s had experienced sexual violence and more than 46% of women suffer from sexual violence. The Network has served as a vital tool to change government policy and public attitudes, and to ensure women who have been traumatised by their experiences are materially and psychologically supported by the state.
The argument to support all refugees and displaced people during the vulnerable stages of upheaval and migration must never be to deny the different experiences of women, children and men, but instead, should seek to facilitate and implement structures of support to meet the material and psychological needs of all migrants fleeing war and persecution.
Routes of Migration
The journey into Europe for those seeking protection is dangerous. On the 11th October 2013 dozens of Syrian and Palestinian refugees died when a boat capsized en route from Libya to Italy and 206 Palestinians and Syrians were rescued. Those who died were buried in unnamed graves, because their families were not in Italy to claim the dead. Many refugees die crossing the Aegean and the Mediterranean; on the 2nd October 2013, 366 Eritrean, Somali and Palestinian refugees died off the coast of Lampedusa and dozens of Syrian refugees have died trying to reach Greece. A boat capsized off the coast of Libya on the 23rd August 2014, at the time of writing, those who died were thought to be from sub Saharan Africa. Only 17 refugees have been rescued, out of a total of 170, among the bodies of those who drowned. On the 29th August 2014, Tunisian rescuers recovered the bodies of 41 migrants, after a boat capsized off the Libyan coast.
While EU countries adopt ‘push back’ strategies, such as the 10.5 kilometre fence across Greece’s border with Turkey, or the 240km fence across the Israel/Egypt border in the Sinai, migrants are being forced to take more dangerous routes in order to seek safety. When the planned border fence between Turkey and Bulgaria goes up, more people will be forced to take perilous routes to ‘safety’ by sea.
The Red Cross recently advocated for the safe passage of refugees through humanitarian channels on the Aegean and Mediterranean to ensure the safety of those fleeing famine and poverty. Up to 800,000 displaced people currently await their fate on the African borders, seeking passage to the European Union. These are people who are fleeing repressive countries, and have already made perilous and life threatening journeys before even getting to the Mediterranean. An Eritrean refugee, Soloman from Newport, described the dangers and obstacles he faced and witnessed en route to the UK. A prisoner of conscience in Eritrea, he managed to escape detention and fled the country, witnessing women being kidnapped by armed gangs to be used as sex slaves, people dying in trucks heading across the Sahara to Libya, and armed gangs and traffickers scrutinising UN run refugee camps, such as Shagarab in Sudan, for people to kidnap and exploit. In 2012 it was reported that 551 refugees disappeared from Shagarab while the UN has recorded that up to 4000 Eritreans flee the Isaias Afewerki repressive rule every month.
After the deaths of 366 migrants off the coast of Lampedusa in Italy, the European Commission set up Eurosur, a surveillance operation to react more quickly to boats in distress. The route between Libya and Italy is a regular migratory route, and this year the UN have estimated that 13,000 Eritreans have made it across the Mediterranean, which is already more than the total in 2013. It is also very costly and traffickers extract thousands of pounds from refugees and pack them on to small fishing boats in their hundreds.
Those with access to money are able to negotiate borders more successfully than those without. Historically, those with money have fled persecution more easily. In 1938, when the Anschluss brought Austria under Nazi control the wealthiest of the Jewish population were able to secure places on flights leaving Vienna. This option was not available to the vast majority of the Jewish population and 180 thousand were left to their fate. The wealthier a person fleeing persecution is, the more likely they are going to have more choice, in terms of destination and mode of transportation. The Syrian refugees, travelling to Europe, pay extortionate amounts of money to people traffickers. The Roma communities of Syria fled to Turkey and many children are forced to beg on the streets of Istanbul. As many as 30 thousand Syrian refugees have adjusted to life in towns close in proximity and culture to Syria, such as Antakya in Turkey. Many millions more, particularly women, children and the vulnerable, stay in the overcrowded camps, in the countries surrounding Syria.
The European Fortress
The European Union is a fortress secured by police, soldiers, border guards, naval patrols, physical barriers and surveillance and detection technologies. The number of migrants who have died trying to cross into the European Union, over land or sea, amounts to approximately 20 thousand people. These are the most dangerous routes, facilitated by people traffickers and smugglers and many of the world’s poorest people have died in the Aegean and Mediterranean, been blown up in minefields between the Turkish and Greek border, fallen from trucks, and frozen to death in the Slovakian and Polish mountains. We are treating undocumented migrants as criminals through internal and external border control regimes, which include detention centres inside and outside fortress Europe.
The European government blames the death toll on ruthless people traffickers and smugglers, but the fact is this service is in demand because millions people’s lives have been destroyed. Within the EU there is a demand for cheap labour, while there is this demand, a desperate migrant escaping poverty or the refugee fleeing persecution and war, will risk the dangerous obstacles put in their way. It is a requirement of international law that frontline states keep their borders open to refugees, though, as we have seen, these rules are flagrantly circumvented by the EU frontline states such as Greece and Italy.
The demand for undocumented migrant workers is greater as long as employers can get a higher return on investment through the exploitation of a cheap labour force. If migrant workers are allowed to flow freely between borders, with the same rights as indigenous workers, they would be entitled to the same pay and conditions. As a result, we could strengthen our organisations and unions, united in our struggle for just and fair conditions in employment and education. It is easier for employers to undercut wages if they have access to a cheap labour force, but equipped with the same rights as the indigenous workforce, a migrant worker would no longer be susceptible to exploitation because of their status. In Istanbul, employers are already taking advantage of an educated Syrian working class, to provide high standards of service in hospitality during the tourist season, whilst paying them less than indigenous workers.
When workers unite for fair pay and conditions, it strengthens the position of all workers. Employers have resorted to accusations that unions are xenophobic, such as when Latvian workers were brought in to Sweden to refurbish a school by a subcontractor of Alfa Laval. The pay and conditions of the migrant workers were less than the nationally agreed pay, so the unions picketed the workplace of the migrant workers. After accusations of xenophobia were directed at the unions by Latvia and the employers, the union responded by putting a statement in a Latvian newspaper inviting Latvian workers working in Sweden to join the union.
The argument to win support for open borders still needs to be won and the unions and political organisations like Left Unity are the place to do it. There is a rightward shift of public opinion across large parts of Europe, evidenced at the recent European elections. With the rise of the Front National in France to the unprecedented support for UKIP, we are seeing people’s anger being directed at the poorest and most vulnerable people in society and not at the wealthiest financiers who are ultimately responsible for the crisis of capital. Migrants and refugees are the scapegoats for people’s anxieties and fears about their livelihoods. These fears can be quashed with facts. Migrant and low paid cleaners working at the Royal Opera House in London secured union recognition with their union Unite. The workers were employed by the sub-contractor Mitie and were only earning £7 per hour, so they went on to campaign for the London living wage and secured a 26% increase in their wages. Left Unity has a membership of 2000 keen activists, trade unionists and workers, currently supporting a no borders policy. Activists should intervene in the movement, dispelling myths about migration and highlighting how capitalists use migration to the benefit of the ruling class and how laws are implemented by government in the interest of the ruling class.
In times of recession the government reorganises labour based on economic factors, for example, highly skilled workers are often introduced into the NHS as a costs effective way of circumventing the reproduction of labour. It is expensive for employers to invest in the infrastructure to train workers, so the exploitation of an already highly skilled labour market is utilised. When there is contraction in the market, the pushing back of migration occurs and vice versa. During these times the scapegoating of migrants and refugees is prevalent. Worker's fears are stoked by an austerity driven government, successfully deflecting people’s attention away from a lack of job prospects and cuts to services by pointing the finger at migrant workers. Migrants are not only being blamed for unemployment, but they are also being blamed for taking advantage of free healthcare and other welfare benefits. After the European election results were delivered, Iain Duncan Smith immediately stated that he will look in to reducing the number of months a tax-paying migrant worker can claim unemployment benefits.
Borders within Borders
The internal detention of migrants within Europe is an extension of border controls. The UK adopts a fast-track approach to processing refugees, meaning that some refugees are detained from the moment they seek asylum and may not leave detention until they are deported to the country from which they fled. Others are detained after losing asylum cases and prior to deportation. There are currently 1300 migrants sleeping rough in Calais during the day and trying to board trucks and ships into the UK during the night. Far right groups led by Sauvons Calais were due to descend on the small shipping port, demanding that the French authorities arrest and return refugees to their countries of origin.
The French government has agreed to open a non-residential refugee day centre, so that refugees can eat, shower and access medical help. Pressure from the Labour government forced the Red Cross to close a residential camp in Sangatte, close to Calais, in 2002. The nationalities of the migrants at the border are from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Darfur, and the rest of Sudan. Tensions already run high between the Middle Eastern and African migrants, each hoping to exploit the best sections of the slip roads leading to the Ferry ports. Welfare groups are trying to curtail such frictions, by organising football games, with the Middle Eastern players on one side and the African players on the other.
It has now been reported that the NATO Summit fences, erected in Cardiff, are to be sent to Calais to make it increasingly difficult for migrants to enter the UK. This is an attempt to push back migration from the UK borders, with the immigration minister, James Brokenshire, warning that the UK is ‘no soft touch.’ The minister warned that migrants won’t be entitled to benefits and driving licenses, obviously for the British audience and Telegraph readers, where the interview was reported.
Detentions centres across the UK are currently run by a number of private contractors such as G4S, Serco, GEO and Mitie who are raking in millions in profits by managing prisons containing the most vulnerable, exploited and oppressed people. Corporate Watch recently conducted research into the detention centres managed by the above G4S, Serco, GEO and Mitie, and found that refugees were further being exploited by the management companies by providing cheap labour. Refugees in detention are paid as little as £1 per hour for cooking and cleaning at the facilities, saving the companies thousands of pounds in costs which would otherwise be used to employ staff at legal rates. As refugees have to pay for their own toiletries at the facilities, it is unlikely they have much choice other than to take up whatever paid employment is on offer.
A women’s detention centre, Yarl’s Wood in the UK, is currently under investigation for the widespread sexual abuse of women on the premises and the way in which the cases have been handled by the company managing the facility; Serco. The United Nations violence against women expert Rashida Manjoo was prevented from accessing Serco’s Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office when she visited the UK, even after a number of requests were made so she could carry out a thorough investigation in to violence against women in the UK. Manjoo is still very concerned about the government’s refusal to allow her to visit the facility.
The abuse of women within the facility has increasingly come to light since Sana, an ex-detainee, reported her abuse. A long-term survivor of abuse, and estranged from her family, Sana was an extremely vulnerable woman when she arrived at the detention centre. A healthcare worker abused his position and trust on a number of occasions and sexually assaulted her whilst in his care. The woman officer who believed Sana was heavily criticised by her superiors for not being more objective. The prisons and probations Ombudsman criticised the police investigation for reaching definitive conclusions after such a brief investigation. On top of that, Serco has fought to keep the internal report carried out on Sana’s case out of the public domain. Women are now starting to come forward about their experience of abuse by male guards and other employees in the facility.
A recent study in to housing provision for asylum seekers in Scotland has found that people are being forced to live in inadequate accommodation whilst awaiting their asylum decisions. The government contractor responsible for providing housing to asylum seekers in Scotland is Serco, and they are subcontracting to a private letting company, Orchard and Shipman. A pregnant woman with a small child was forced to live in a room with an ongoing leak, while another woman with a child was given 10 minutes notice that another family were moving in to her small flat with her. The private managing companies, driven by profit, do not understand the complex needs, or as the study indicates, the basic needs of the most vulnerable people, many of whom have experienced sexual violence and torture. The wholesale withdrawal of housing provision from local authorities has meant that housing providers with experience dealing with the needs of vulnerable groups, such as Glasgow City Council and YPeople, no longer have any influence over the conditions of service.
Funding for women’s refuges is not ring fenced, which means specialist support services for women fleeing violence is being cut. Refugees very often utilise women’s refuges specialising in violence against BME women, because of the specialist knowledge and experience in understanding the complexities of a woman’s status, language barriers and culture, among other things. Local authorities across the UK are pulling money out of services similar to Ashiana in Sheffield, and putting it in to larger housing associations. This could potentially act as a deterrent to vulnerable women accessing services in the first place.
The coming into force of the Immigration Act 2014 will mean that only migrants who have Indefinite Leave to Remain will be able to access free healthcare on the NHS, regardless of whether they’re working and therefore paying tax, accessing education or coming to the UK to be with family. Although refugees and asylum seekers are exempt from NHS charges, it is uncertain whether other vulnerable groups of people such as refused asylum seekers and irregular migrants will have to pay. The new rules could deter the most vulnerable from accessing services. Healthcare professionals are thus expected to take on the role of immigration officers, and the Home Office could potentially utilise the flow of data from the Department of Health to determine the immigration status of those accessing NHS services.
What we can do
- Support campaigns fighting for the rights of migrants, such as Calais Migrant Solidarity. The campaign group collects data on police harassment of migrants and mobilises against fascists, such as the local fascist group, Sauvons Calais. We should support and promote the activities of antifascist mobilisations. Calais Migrant Solidarity called on antifascists across France and Europe to support this counter demo, because thousands of fascists will be heading to Calais from across France.
- Support grassroots organisations led by refugees and asylum seekers such as Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group (WSSAG). These groups allow refugees to take control of their own circumstances, offer support to one another and campaign on issues affecting their lives, building shared experience and knowledge of the asylum system and rights in the UK.
- Support No Borders groups. These are brilliant groups right across the country dispelling myths about borders, and campaigning alongside some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people.
- Support all manner of campaigns against war and injustice, including the Syria Solidarity Movement, Docs not Cops, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War coalition.
- Publish a migration myth buster pamphlet. We can use this as a guide to intervene in the movement and union branches.
- Speak to comrades in Left Unity branches and unions about putting on meetings on immigration and borders.
Philip Marfleet, Refugees in a Global Era, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
Going West: contemporary mixed migration trends from the Horn of Africa to Libya and Europe, The Regional Mixed Migration Sectretariat, June 2014
Truth, Lies and Migrants: A Guide to Popular Migration, SERTUC, May 2014
Fortress Europe: The Fight for Migrant Rights, Red Pepper, December/January 2013
- Category: Unions
- Published on Monday, 15 September 2014
- Written by Mark Boothroyd
With both UNISON and UNITE balloting for strike action and action short of a strike in the NHS, there is an urgent need for discussion among health activists of how we ensure the strikes are successful and strengthen our fight for to save the NHS, and don't result in disillusionment and disorganisation of our members.
While a ballot for action is welcome in the NHS, and long overdue, there are serious problems with the action the leaderships of UNISON and UNITE are proposing.
A four hour strike
Firstly, there is the nature of the strike action proposed. UNISON has stated that if the ballot is successful strike action will only be for four hours. UNITE has termed their action a “microstrike”, leaving open its length, but hinting at a short or partial action. I have not seen an explanation for why this is. It is demoralising for reps and members who want a whole days strike action, and creates massive problems logistically for workers to undertake a four hour strike. With a full days strike action, unions can demand the hospital only provide emergency cover, the equivalent of Sunday working; outpatients, and non-emergency services are closed, elective surgery is cancelled and wards run with reduced staff. This frees staff to participate in strike action, and while stopping the hospital working, is no more dangerous to the patients than spending a normal Sunday in a hospital bed.
With a four hour strike, we cannot make such a demand. The hospital will run as normal, and those working with patients on wards or in theatres, or in time critical services like pathology and diagnostic scans (CT, x-ray, MRI), will have to leave work in the middle of extremely busy schedules to participate in the strike and then return to a massive backlog of patient demands and urgently needed work. This will be extremely difficult to organise, and management will be able to bring massive pressure to bear on all staff not to participate in the strike due to the potential effects on the patients.
A four hour strike will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to organise for most clinical NHS staff and, pardon my cynicism, seems like a conscious decision on the part of the union leaderships to make the strike harder to pull off.
No further action
There is no plan of action beyond the single day. We are being balloted for a single four hour strike, and then a work to rule. No further days are planned. UNITE has said on their leaflet enclosed with the ballot “If we plan to take further actions, we will communicate with you again.” This doesn't give our members the impression that our leaders have a strategy for taking the dispute forward, and if they do have a plan, deprives members of the opportunity to see what it is, discuss it and suggest alternatives.
Trade union activists can look around at other recent strike action and decide for themselves what works and what doesn't. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) had a series of one day strikes, months apart, which secured nothing for their members, and served to demobilise members who grew tired and demoralised of organising one day actions so widely spaced out they lose all momentum and support in between.
In Higher Education, UNITE, UNISON and UCU staged a series of one day actions, again widely spaced out, which again served to demobilise rather than mobilise the workforce, and ended up splintering the strike as participating unions dropped out until UCU alone was taking action. The strength, unity and enthusiasm built up through joint actions was frittered away and the strike action secured minimal gains.
The unions need to announce a plan now, of successive days of action taking place every month, preferably escalating, to demonstrate to the workforce that they have a plan, and are willing to put the pressure on the government needed to secure a win.
A work to rule where there is too much work and the rules are against you
The second component of the action is a work to rule. UNITE are calling for workers to take their breaks, and to leave work on time. While welcome, this is easier said than done, and that advice shows a lack of both understanding of the pressures staff are under, and creativity when it comes to implementing a work to rule.
NHS staff are under massive pressure. All staff whether clinical or non-clinical are at, or in many cases past, breaking point due to the pressure to perform their work and ensure patients are cared for safely and mistakes are not made in an incredibly high pressured and increasingly bureaucratic system.
Those of us in clinical roles are bound by our codes of conduct to complete all our work necessary to ensure our patients are treated with care and dignity, while non-clinical staff are bound by basic human decency to ensure they do a good job and no patients suffer.
Nurses doing ward work are not missing their breaks and staying hours after work because they want to, they do so because those hours are the extra amount of labour time required to provide the minimum of safe basic care in the understaffed NHS. Admin workers are staying at their desks hours after work to ensure urgent referrals are completed so patients do not have to wait longer than necessary for treatment. Porters miss breaks and stay late to ensure urgent patient cases are moved around the hospital, and patients are not left sitting on wards, missing treatments. There are always jobs left over at the end of the shift which the workforce has to hand over, piling more work on the next shift.
In this situation, asking workers to undertake a work to rule when there is simply too much work, and that work is vital for the wellbeing of other human beings, will be extremely difficult unless we develop some imaginative and creative ways of reducing our workload and using the work to rule to undermine the bureaucratic and oppressive systems of control implemented by NHS management.
What are our demands?
Finally, what are our demands? This strike is ostensibly to secure the 1% pay rise the government denied us last year. This is paltry, a terribly weak demand that does nothing to galvanise the membership and merely leaves us open to comparison with private sector workers who received nothing in the same period.
We need political demands which tie our strike into the fight to save the NHS, and a wage claim which actually gives our members some relief from the downward pressure on wages exerted by inflation and four years of a pay freeze.
In the US, the Chicago Teachers Union, operating in a climate far more hostile to trade unionism, fought and won better conditions and pay using the strategy of social movement trade unionism. They went out to the communities they served and met community groups, parents associations and won them to supporting their strike, by taking up their demands for smaller class sizes, better funding for schools. Instead of fighting on the narrow basis of pay and terms and conditions, they made their strike about preserving and improving their service.
We have to make this strike about protecting and improving the NHS. Even if we win a pay rise, it won't be much use as the service is dismantled, privatised and cut piece by piece. And simply striking for pay without talking about the need to defend the NHS from cuts and privatisation will allow the government and media to portray us as greedy, and that our demands will bankrupt a service already suffering from cuts and austerity.
The anti-union laws prevent political strikes, but we can ballot and strike over a pay claim, while making clear our demands and actions go further than this and are political in nature. By making our strike about the future of the NHS we can rally the public in support of us, and mobilise public opinion against the government.
My suggestions for demands to put to branches would be:
- An 11% wage claim for everyone in the NHS, the same as parliament gave themselves
- Mandatory minimum staffing ratios for nurses in all services, to protect patients and guarantee them good standards of care
- The cancellation of all PFI debt, to free up money to pay for wages, the hiring of more nurses, and to repair the damage done by cuts
- A halt to all cuts and privatisations wherever they are happening
There will be resistance from trade union hierarchies worried about their positions and their jobs if we break the law, but the argument has to be had out that securing successful action to protect the NHS and guarantee our members a living wage takes precedence. Unions should be under the control of their members, and if we want to take action on a political basis they should support us or get out of the way.
Strike for a whole day
A priority for all NHS branches should be lobbying for a whole day of strike action. We need to make sure there is broad agreement that we need at least a 24 hour strike to begin the action, and that this should tie-in with a plan of escalation.
Reps and branch meetings should be convened and motions passed asking the union leadership to endorse a full 24 hour strike in the NHS as the first day of action. This should be common sense to most reps and members. If enough branches pass motions calling for a proper strike, hopefully the leadership will correct their error.
To ensure they get the message, we should also start discussing how we can make the strike twenty four hours ourselves. Most reps and members will be rightly frustrated with this ill-thought-out four hour strike plan and the trouble and obstacles it creates for those trying to organise action. This frustration should be enlisted to make the case for branches organising 24 hour strikes ourselves.
A properly organised twenty four hour strike will be safer for patients than a disorganised 4 hour strike with workers walking off wards and out of clinics and leaving patients and other health workers in the lurch. We're being balloted for a strike, people will want to have a “proper” strike, and its safer for patients if the hospital is running according to Sunday working. If we get a ballot for yes, why shouldn't we take the initiative and take a proper days strike action?
While such an action would violate the anti-union laws, its the prospect of branches attempting to organise a 24 hour strike themselves which may force the leadership to endorse such action and make it legal. If we merely pass resolutions, and don't take the practical steps to agitate among the membership and prepare for a twenty four hour action, the leadership won't feel the pressure to move on this issue.
Action, action and more action
One day strikes only work if they are a part of a plan to escalate action, or they come together frequently enough to create an ongoing political issue for the government. I have two proposals for what strategy we should argue for.
Escalating action: This would mean if we manage to get a one day strike in October, then we go out for two days in November, three in December, four in January, and on from there. These should be announced in advance and the dates set so members can prepare, we can collect money for hardship funds and win the argument for striking over the Christmas period when members will want to be saving money for presents for children and family.
Escalating action would ramp up the pressure on the government immensely, and the longer strikes would build up backlogs of NHS work that would be politically deadly for the government, and a huge logistical problem as the extra capacity doesn't exist to clear them quickly. This will be hard to argue for in the face of a vociferous media quick to blame the NHS for any failings, but unions need to be clear that the short term inconvenience due to delayed operations pales into comparison to what will happen if we lose the entire NHS due to government policy. This its why its crucial we make any action about protecting the NHS, not just our pay. The public will accept inconvenience and delays for action to save the NHS, they will be less accepting of it simply for a higher wage deal for NHS workers, as deserving of this as we are.
What is crucial is making sure dates for action are set as soon as possible. Its positively sabotage to wait till after the first strike before calling more action. The union leaderships might want to see what the turn out is first, but they've already guaranteed the turn out for the first strike will be poor by the nature of the action they've called. If members can see there is a plan to escalate action they are more likely to commit, we can have the argument out early with those who are opposed, do the necessary preparation and members will see the leadership has a plan, and their sacrifices will be worth something as they will exert real pressure on the government.
Consistent regular action: This would mean going out once a month every month until the election. While not increasing the pressure as escalating action does, it will create huge political problems for the government. NHS strikes generate huge political pressure on the government. If they happen each month, even if just for one day, that will become a regular source of political pressure and unpopularity for the government. And the last thing they want in the run up to the election is for the NHS to be in the news and NHS workers to be marching regularly in the street. While one day of action a month is in my view quite conservative and doesn't apply the necessary pressure, it would still be a big undertaking and achievement for a demoralised and in some areas poorly organised NHS workforce. Keeping up regular political pressure on the government through short but regular strike action would keep the NHS in the news, and be politically deadly for the Tories in the run up to the election. They may be more likely to give in and offer a larger rise in an attempt to “buy off” NHS workers ahead of the election, and avoid the possibility of NHS strikes in the run up to the vote.
Creative and radical ways we can work to rule
Given the work to rule is a big part of the unions' strategy, we should have a serious discussion among members about how we can use this to our advantage, to reduce unnecessary work and bureaucracy, develop members confidence and organisation and take back control of our work and our lives from the employer.
As stated above, taking your breaks and finishing on time are a serious challenge to most NHS workers, so an effective work to rule has to involve reducing our workload as well. For clinical staff, one tactic might be to organise a boycott of paperwork; all non-essential, non-evidence based paperwork should just be binned. As nurses we complete reams of largely unnecessary paperwork which is not evidence based. It is primarily designed not to aid patient care, but to provide legal cover for the hospital if any errors are committed. It also functions as a labour disciplining tool, giving management instruments for monitoring nurses work, forcing us to work harder to ensure everything is done according to policy. Most of this paperwork is clinically unnecessary, bureaucratic and time wasting. Refusing to do it, and instead just recording written notes, would be popular, free up nurses' time to complete all their care, take their breaks and (possibly) leave on time, and would not breach our code of conduct.
I am sure other staff groups have similar tasks that have been forced on them by the current target driven and bureaucratic management culture. Identifying these tasks and organising to boycott them would be an effective way to implement a work to rule that would reduce management's power to bully us by removing their monitoring tools (hourly rounding charts, etc), while freeing our time for the things that matter, like patient care and communicating with colleagues.
It also gives us a politically popular message: we're rejecting bureaucratic and inefficient practices in order to give us more time to do our jobs properly and care for patients. That is much harder for management to argue against.
Another tactic would be to copy the lead of Australian nurses. I had the privilege to meet Lisa Fitzpatrick, Chair of the Victoria branch of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation earlier this year. Lisa spoke to the 4:1 Campaign about the ways ANMF members fight cuts and attempts to take away their mandatory minimum nurse staffing levels.
When they organise action short of a strike, nurses block hospital beds. They effectively ban a hospital from admitting patients into 1 in 5 beds. How do they do it? Direct action. The nurses will go round the ward and physically remove the mattresses from every 5th bed, hide it, lock it in a cupboard, or stick it under a bed where it can't be used.
They then put big “BED BLOCKED” signs on the beds to indicate they can't be used. They keep a couple of beds open in A&E for emergency cases, but they refuse to take more non-emergency patients until their demands are met. This forces the hospitals to scale back or stop all their elective work in order to keep beds free for emergencies. The nurses don't stop caring for patients, they just refuse to let the hospital dictate how many they take, and force hospital management to re-prioritise their work and their admissions. This video of Lisa's talk explains how they do this, why its effective and how they use the media to their advantage over this issue.
How could this work in a British context? We don't have the organisation or militancy among health workers at present to block 1 in 5 hospital beds in the NHS. But the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued new staffing guidelines, which recommend that nurses should not care for more than 8 patients at a time.
It is completely justifiable that nurses utilise the bed blocking tactic to enforce this new guideline when hospital management is unwilling to. Branches could organise to support their nurse members enforcing the 1:8 ratio on their wards as part of their work to rule. Nurses can state they're "working to rule" to the new NICE guidelines, and they won't work on understaffed shifts, or care for unsafe numbers of patients, according to the new rules.
Petitions could be circulated for nurses to sign asking that get the 1:8 ratio, and pledging not to work if they're forced to care for more than 8 patients, an unsafe number according to NICE and all available nursing research.
On wards where nurses regularly care for 8 or more patients, whenever a patient is discharged nurses should block the bed(s) until the nurse-patient ratio on the ward is 1:8. Those beds then stay blocked until the hospital provides more staff and meets the ratio of 1:8 permanently.
Given that a survey of 526 nurses by the Nursing Times in February 2014 found 44% of nurses saying they regularly cared for 10 or more patients on their wards, and a UNISON survey of 3,000 nurses reporting 45% caring for more than 8 patients, tens of thousands of nurses could participate in this action. We can make our work to rule about enforcing patient safety in an NHS made unsafe by brutal cuts and austerity. We can make our action popular with the public, and reclaim our rightful place as champions for patients' safety from creeps like Jeremy Hunt.
These are just a few ideas from the nursing profession, I welcome other health activists contributing their knowledge of their work and specialities to this discussion. We need to come up with ways of reducing our workload, while maintaining or improving patient safety, and putting pressure on trust management.
Developing strike organisation in the NHS
All of the above ideas are predicated on developing much better organisation among trade unionists and health workers in the NHS. If any of this is to happen, branches need to involve their members in planning and organising all aspects of the strike, and we will need cross-union organisation within hospitals and between them. The leaderships of UNISON and UNITE will be wanting to use the strike for their own purposes, and trying to keep whatever happens from inconveniencing the Labour Party in the run up to the election. The calling of the “micro strike” is just the first example of some of the obstacles we may face from our leaders.
There isn't enough of a left presence in UNISON to vote through further action in any of its leadership bodies, and UNITE has refused to call further action in the past when UNISON has called off strikes in health, so any further action is going to have to be a result of pressure from below, from the membership and branches organising and demanding it.
Using the strike to develop a coordination of NHS workers and health branches which is committed to a transforming the fight over pay into a political fight over the future of the NHS is an opportunity which can't be missed, and will be crucial if we are to have any chance of securing and sustaining further action, let alone winning anything substantial from this fight.
Nurse Boothroyd blogs at
and is involved in the 4:1 Campaign for Mandatory Minimum Staffing Ratios in the NHS
- Category: LGBT
- Published on Tuesday, 9 September 2014
- Written by ISN
a workshop for socialists on understanding and resisting Transphobia, hosted by the IS Network
Saturday 20th September,
Ben Pimlott Building, Goldsmiths College London SE14 6NW
(Tube: New Cross Gate/New Cross)
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