Inside Labour: As Brexit looms, London's migrants keep building

London - Immigrant Irish “navvies” (labourers) are credited with much of the construction work of the last century that made London the city it is today.

Their contribution - along with the hardships they suffered - is immortalised in songs such as McAlpine’s Fusiliers, which deals with the often brutal construction sites in the post-World War II years, McAlpine being one of the major construction companies.

In a move reminiscent of what is increasingly happening in workplaces around the world today, the British Labour Party government in 1966 introduced the Selective Employment Tax that enabled employers to re-employ formerly permanent workers as “self-employed contractors”.

They would be paid a lump sum every week for the work done.

This became known among the Irish navvies, and the other migrants who worked alongside them, as The Lump. It opened up a period of even worse exploitation and in 1967 gave rise to an iconic campaigning film of that name. But it was a series of strikes in the 1970s that finally saw some improvement.

Anti-immigrant backlash

Today the worst excesses of that period are over and a building boom continues in the British capital. Once again, it is the sweated labour of migrant workers that is changing the face of London. But they are also the face of the anti-immigrant backlash that underlay much of the populist groundswell that saw a majority of the British electorate vote to leave the European Union (EU).

Ireland remains an EU member as the British government tries to extricate itself as cheaply as possible from the maze of obligations, legislation, treaties and regulations that make it a member. And the migrant army that now mans the construction sites comprises Romanians, Poles, Indians and Sri Lankans.

“Of more than 600 on our payroll, there are about 60 English-born workers,” one company official says.

It is hard, back-breaking and often dangerous work but with widely observed health and safety regulations now in place, the numbers of deaths and injuries are a small fraction of those in South Africa. However, pay is still low, especially in relation to the extraordinarily expensive accommodation in the city.

So, as in the time of McAlpine’s Fusiliers, the migrant workers of today often live in shared, overcrowded and relatively squalid conditions.

In an echo of the South African claim that it is illegal Malawians/Zimbabweans/foreigners taking our jobs, politicians supporting a British exit (Brexit) from the EU maintained that many migrant workers were overstayers.

Students in particular were singled out since more than 140 000 foreign students enter Britain every year. Most, said Prime Minister Theresa May, stayed on, so they were added to the immigration statistics.

'Disgraceful, scaremongering tactic'

But this was a myth described this week by author, broadcaster and parliamentarian Mervyn Bragg as a “disgraceful, scaremongering tactic”. And it was the government’s own border control statistics that last week revealed that only 4 600 students had stayed on last year after their visas expired.

Some, perhaps most, might have found jobs and made proper application to stay on.

One of those statistics was Sri Lankan Nathan, a skilled worker who, having landed a job after completing his training as a student, approached a local lawyer to make the proper applications and ensure his papers would be in order.

Assured that all would be above board, he worked for a well-known construction company and kept paying the lawyer. When, after more than a year, and £13 000 out of pocket, nothing had happened, Nathan went to the police to complain.

“They thought he was daft,” said a company supervisor who commended Nathan as “a very valued employee”. “He had overstayed his visa and had effectively turned himself in.” Nathan was arrested on the spot and deported.

One result of the scaremongering myth of student overstayers has been that British universities are facing student shortfalls as foreign applications slump. International students, Bragg - also a former Leeds University chancellor - noted, “are rejecting us in droves”.

And the Irish embassy reports that there has been a surge in applications for Irish citizenship from those who qualify by reason of descent, some of them perhaps the children of the navvies who helped build London and then settled here.

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