The deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants last October – who suffocated inside an airtight container on a lorry bound for the UK – was a tragic example of the danger faced by those fleeing poverty in their own countries.
An article from The Guardian lists the names and ages of the migrants who endured a 12 hour journey sealed inside a container with the temperature reaching 38.5 degrees. Ten of them were aged 19 or under; Nguyen Huy Hung and Dinh Dinh Binh were both just 15 years old.
Four men are currently on trial for their roles in smuggling the people, as well as their deaths. But while this may be an extreme case, the desperation of Vietnamese workers to escape poverty and provide for their families is an endless tragedy.
A report from the UK Anti Slavery Commissioner points out that in 2016, Vietnamese was the second-highest nationality of those referred through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for slavery and trafficking. Both children and adults fall victim to human trafficking; in the UK, boys will often be sent to work on cannabis farms, while girls end up in nail bars. Former anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland has scathingly criticised the government over the way it handles the NRM referrals: “There is a backlog of thousands. The decision-making is very slow. There is poor identification of victims, and poor support for victims” .
And the police have often failed to properly help young Vietnamese men and boys forced to work on the cannabis farms. In 2012, 96% of those forced to work on the UK’s so-called ‘blood cannabis’ farms, in horrific conditions, were from Vietnam; of these, 81% were children. In 2017, three men were jailed for forcing young Vietnamese to work on a cannabis farm in an abandoned nuclear bunker, keeping them locked up there.
Vietnamese migrants looking to work in the UK or Europe – around 18,000 people each year – have to pay anywhere between £8,000 and £40,000 for a smuggler to arrange the travel. Many have no choice but to take the so-called “CO2 route”, in the back of a stuffy lorry for the majority of the 6,000 mile trip. About 60 miles from Calais is ‘Vietnam City’ – a holding camp for the migrants looking to enter the UK, where they will face further exploitation.
Not just Vietnamese migrants
This is not an issue limited to Vietnamese migrants in the UK, however.
In February 2004, 23 Chinese migrants working as cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay died when the tide came in as they worked at night. And twenty years ago, in a terrible parallel to the Essex deaths, 58 Chinese nationals were found dead in the back of a lorry.
The scale of the human trafficking industry worldwide is immense; an ILO report put the number of people trapped in forced labour in 2016 at 40 million.
It is one of the contradictions of the global capitalist system that ‘advanced’ countries enforce harsh immigration laws, yet employers the world over will clamour for cheap, easily exploitable labour. The UK’s new points-based immigration system will set the minimum earnings threshold at £25,600, and the policy statement says that “We will not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route.” Yet last year the British Chamber of Commerce voiced the fears of bosses over the impact of the new immigration rules.
Any ‘labour shortages’ in the UK, coupled with the lack of a formal immigration route for ‘low-skilled’ or poorer workers, would be an excuse for employers to seek out back-door routes for access to cheap labour. Where the bosses claim there are labour shortages, the worker’s movement should mobilise around the demand for well-paid jobs on trade union terms and conditions for all workers, including migrants.
As we said in a feature article in March this year: “We should have no faith in the government to decide who can and can’t come to live in Britain. The points based system is just an extreme version of what was already the case – the world’s super-rich, the real scroungers, are welcome to come and go as they please, but ordinary people have to jump through impossible hoops to attempt to make a decent life for themselves and their families.”
Those with £2 million to spare can simply buy British citizenship, and according to a 2018 report, EU member states received around €25 billion in investment over the last decade, in return for ‘golden visas’.
The trade union movement must organise all workers
We must reject the ‘us-and-them’ narrative that divides us; the Tory immigration system is designed to only serve the interests of the rich. Shortages of housing, fewer public services such as school places and access to health care have been caused by years of austerity from New Labour, ConDem coalition and Tory governments. Migrant workers in Britain should have equal access to housing, education, healthcare, and work on trade union rates of pay and conditions. And through the joint struggle of British and migrant workers, we can fight for the democratic public ownership and investment in these and other services that we all need. We stand for the unity of the international working class and all oppressed people. Those ‘undocumented’ workers, smuggled into the UK through vicious traffickers and gangmasters, should be given a blanket amnesty and legal status to work and access benefits, education, healthcare and housing.
But it should not stop there. Socialists fight for a world where working-class people are freely able to travel abroad, yet without the compulsion of escaping poverty and exploitation. We need fight to end slavery and oppression. To do this, we need to fight for a socialist world, one where the needs of all people are fully met, and ordinary people have full control over all aspects of production and the economy.