Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s ruling that the UK government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful. The court ruled that there was a real risk deported refugees could have their claims wrongly assessed and that they could be returned to their country of origin to face the very persecution which had forced them to flee in the first place.
This was not only a win for the rights of refugees to seek safety in the UK and a stinging political defeat for the Tories — the judgment was also vindication for all workers and campaigners who see the demonisation of refugees for what it is: a ruse to mask the catastrophic failings on living standards overseen by the Tories.
It is not refugees who have driven down wages and starved public services of the resources they need – it is the fault of successive Tory governments who have presided over a decade of brutal austerity cuts.
In moral terms, it also represents what our partners in Care4Calais called ‘a victory for humanity’. The lives of those survivors of war, torture and modern slavery will not be further blighted by forced deportations to Rwanda.
But how and why did the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) get involved with this campaign and legal process? It is a tale of ordinary workers doing extraordinary things. In autumn 2021, PCS was approached by our members and representatives in our Home Office South East England branch who had been asked by the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to carry out a dangerous pushbacks manoeuvre on small boats crossing the English Channel.
Our members were clear: they were completely opposed to the policy, which they considered unlawful, morally reprehensible, and utterly inhumane. Since then, PCS has been engaged in litigation against the Home Office on behalf of our members who deliver the UK’s asylum and immigration system and of vulnerable refugees whom the government seeks to demonise.
We blocked the government from implementing these dangerous and unlawful pushback manoeuvres and our judicial review proceedings over the Rwanda plan helped to prevent the deportation of eight individual refugees.
We never viewed these cruel policies as irrelevant to our membership. Trade unions have mandates to represent the interests of their members but can pursue campaigns in which this mandate intersects with a broader fight for justice, equality, and freedom for all.
Our work in this regard potentially sets a new standard for our movement — as the Fire Brigades Union has shown in its recent legal challenge to plans to house asylum seekers on a giant barge which they rightly described as a ‘potential deathtrap,’ on which their members would be expected to go if there was an emergency.
Our campaign is not over. The ink is not yet dry on the Supreme Court’s judgement and Rishi Sunak is already allegedly plotting a new treaty with Rwanda, or emergency legislation, to dance around some of the conclusions of the Supreme Court judges. It is imperative that we as a trade union movement continue to resist the ongoing war against refugees’ right to seek asylum and live in dignity.
We must ensure that we continue to fight this initiative tooth and nail. We have a duty to protect our members from working in a hostile environment and a duty to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
For decade upon decade, the ruling class in the UK has pursued neoliberal economic policies which have had disastrous consequences for the infrastructure of this country and the living and working conditions of the working class. They have consistently sought to mask their failures by creating a poisonous environment for refugees, fuelling racial hatred in order to divide us from one another.
Yet while their desperation is obvious to most, it is our job as trade unionists to challenge their narrative and create an alternative — especially when the opposition party is weak on a more progressive agenda.
One way PCS has attempted to do this is by producing a joint policy with Care4Calais on safe passage for refugees. A humane alternative to the inhumanity of the Rwanda policy, Safe Passage demands the implementation of a Safe Passage Visa Scheme to allow refugees to enter the UK safely and begin their asylum claim.
It also demands reform of immigration detention centres and greater investment in the Home Office to ensure that staff in the department have the time, space, and resources to properly determine asylum claims, free from political pressure and interference. We continue to call on the government to implement our Safe Passage policy and for all trade unions to support this workable solution to dangerous channel crossings, the only way to prevent tragic deaths in the channel.
Sick and tired of being used as a political football, our members in the Home Office aspire towards a fair and empathetic asylum system. The hostile environment in which they are working needs to be dismantled and the resources that the government is currently ploughing into initiatives like the Rwanda policy should instead be used to facilitate the settlement of refugees in this country.
At least £140 million of taxpayers’ money has already been gifted to the Rwandan government, together with an untold amount of money spent on litigation on the issue – all while tens of thousands of the government’s own workers, our hardworking members, receive poverty pay in some areas and are forced to use food banks to get by.
At our most recent conference, we heard how our campaigning against the government’s anti-refugee policies had opened ‘up debate that we haven’t had in the Home Office before.’ Members are rightly concerned about their bread-and-butter issues — but they are also keen to develop an alternative vision to the society we currently live in. This is a key aspect of our campaign and we hope that our approach spreads across the movement in the coming years and decades.
We will continue to fight to ensure that the lives of refugees, and the working lives of our members, are dramatically improved. But we are also clear that we cannot rely on the courts to do what needs to be done, whether that is to protect refugees from belligerent policies or to prevent workers from having their democratic right to strike undermined.
The only solution to plunging living standards, which gives rise to fascist-baiting rhetoric and inhumane policies, is to strengthen the trade union movement by organising new members across the public and private sector. The more workers we have organised, and the more activists we have in workplaces across the UK, the better placed we are to resist further attempts to terrorise refugees, demonise minorities, and erode workers’ rights and pay.
As this campaign has vividly demonstrated, ordinary workers can achieve extraordinary things when we stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable in our society to defeat our common oppressor.