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Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London have been organising in defence of cleaning staff who were recently questioned, held in custody and deported in a raid at the institution.
It is reported that ISS, the company that employs the SOAS cleaning staff, had collaborated with the UK Border Agency to arrest the workers through the pretence of an “emergency staff meeting” on Friday, June 12. At this "meeting", 40 police officers dressed in riot gear were reportedly hidden while managers barred exits. The officers pounced on the workers, rounding them up for questioning. Five were forcibly removed from the country within 48 hours. Two are currently being held at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.
According to the campaign blog, freesoascleaners.blogspot.com, the campus was sealed off while workers were locked in a room, and then questioned one by one in an adjacent room. Union representatives trying to bring water and aid to their members, including a woman more than six months pregnant, were denied access and not allowed to provide any legal aid for their members.
It cannot be ignored that the cleaners had recently made important gains in their struggle for better pay and conditions and were organising to unionise themselves. The role of the state acting in conjunction with business in smashing workers' organisation has rightly been condemned. As the students say, "our fight [is] to ensure that employers and the Government do not use the threat of deportation to intimidate workers and prevent them from fighting to improve pay and conditions and trade union recognition..."
Such Gestapo-style raids reveal the brutal direction in which the state is heading. Immigration is a matter of humanity, not an issue of "economic worth" or any other considerations: attacks on the rights of immigrant workers are attacks on the rights of all. Students are rightly protesting against such intolerable acts, as well as for the closure of detention centres, in defence of the rights of all behind the banner that "No One is Illegal!"
The SOAS students quickly organised in support of the cleaners and occupied the principal's office from three days from Monday to Wednesday (June 15-17). Their blog reports that "after several rounds of intense and complicated negotiations we have reached an agreement between all parties. We feel management took our concerns seriously and are confident that the way in which these negotiations were carried out has produced a constructive and positive outcome."
The students claimed success, but are well aware that the fight continues. "Although these are a important victories so far they are more symbolic than practical. ... SOAS now has a common goal, this must be used to further lobby for the cleaners in hiding, those that were already sent back to their countries of origin and those still held in deportation centres."
The occupation came in the wake of a national wave of university occupations in support of the Palestinian people and has extended that movement further. In the conditions of the slide to meltdown, war and fascisation, students are building a new surge of activity and showing to all that yes, students are political. Their confidence shows that an alternative is possible; the slide is not inevitable.
17 June 2009
Following the protest by students about Friday’s visit by the UK Border Agency, we are pleased to confirm that a way forward has been agreed by all parties involved
The events surrounding last Friday have been deeply distressing for everyone at SOAS and in particular the individuals who were detained. Furthermore, we are disturbed by allegations that have emerged about the possible role that ISS played in the visit.
We have agreed the following:
1. SOAS will write directly to the Home Secretary within 12 hours of the end of the protest, requesting that he grants exceptional leave to remain in the UK to those cleaners who are still being detained. In addition, SOAS will request the immediate return of those who have been deported and exceptional leave to remain for those forced into hiding by Friday’s raid.
2. SOAS will open discussions with ISS, and separately with UNISON, UCU and the SU, to review in detail the events of last Friday.
3. SOAS will discuss the possibility of bringing cleaning services in-house at the next scheduled meeting of its Governing Body.
4. SOAS will meet with the relevant unions to discuss health and safety issues relating to immigration raids and acknowledge UCU policy of non-compliance with immigration raids.
5. SOAS will not take action against those involved in the protest.
This incident has highlighted the need for further debate regarding this issue and, as has been mentioned in earlier correspondence, SOAS will be speaking with other heads of universities about the wider implications of the Government's policy on immigration and any likely impact it may have on our staff and students.
We recognise the valued contribution of all migrants who have worked at SOAS over the years and have a long tradition of welcoming people from all over the world. In our personal capacity, we would also like to indicate our support for the regularisation of non-documented workers.
We would like to thank all staff and students for their valued contributions, support and co-operation in recent days as we have worked towards this agreement.
Director and Principal
Co-president SOAS Students’ Union
Unison, June 19, 2009
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis today voiced the union's “grave concern” at an immigration raid in London that has led to the deportation of Unison members. The raid was conducted by officers of the UK Borders Agency in the early hours of June 12, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in central London.
Mr Prentis told conference delegates that SOAS staff had been called to a staff meeting by the private contractor ISS. Once they were gathered inside a lecture theatre, more than 40 officers in riot gear stormed the room. The union rep was refused access. The raid resulted in the arrest and detention of nine cleaners from Latin American countries, including several Unison members.
“This action sends an unacceptable message that, based on race, workers are being profiled as ‘illegal’ and subjected to harassment,” said Mr Prentis. “Six of the nine workers have now been removed from Britain, while two others are currently detained in immigration removal facilities. One of those detained and subsequently removed was six months pregnant, and in great distress. We deplore the trauma these events have caused for all the cleaning staff involved.”
Mr Prentis has written to the home secretary to formally register the union’s protest at the way in which this and other such raids are carried out. The Greater London region is writing to ISS and SOAS to protest against their actions.
“We are particularly disturbed at the role that ISS management and the college appear to have played,” said the general secretary, addressing delegates on behalf of the NEC. “The raid came shortly after the employer had signed a recognition agreement with Unison and could be seen as a calculated attempt to intimidate workers, who have been a flagship of the campaign for a London Living Wage for workers on outsourced contracts. Sadly this is not a one off incident. Raids such as this are becoming all too common.”
Unison welcomed the decision of SOAS to write to the Home Office requesting exceptional leave to remain for those ISS workers still detained, and the return of those deported.
Mr Prentis added that Unison was continuing to call for regularisation for undocumented migrant workers, to recruit and organise among migrant workers, and campaign to secure the London Living Wage as an absolute minimum for all workers in the capital.
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