Support for key workers, Peterborough. Photo: Creative Commons Support for key workers, Peterborough. Photo: Creative Commons

Government claps for key workers ring hollow as they force through the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, writes Alia Butt

Public attitudes towards low paid work have changed; but despite joining in the claps for our carers the government’s new immigration bill demonstrates their contempt for immigrant workers like those who are on the front line of fighting the virus. 

Due to the dramatic changes in society as a result of the Covid crisis, people we have recently been referring to as ‘key workers’ in previously underappreciated professions are being seen in a new light. Though we can hear this shift in social consciousness, in the form of a weekly ovation, the term ‘unskilled worker’ has once again reared its ugly yet familiar head.

Priti Patel’s immigration policy of blocking entry to anyone who earns less than £26,000 (and is therefore branded ‘unskilled’), is still being pushed through Parliament by the Conservative Party.  Shamefully, Labour MP Yvette Cooper chose not to vote against, citing ‘cross-party spirit’.

These are the very MPs that came out onto their doorsteps and clapped our carers.

Every day we see new rainbows painted on streets and delicately stuck to windows by inspired children.

Yet the Tories still managed to find it in their hearts to push through the immigration bill.  It sends a very clear message to the public: the many who have kept the country afloat, who have spent their blood, sweat and tears to save our lives and preserve our sanity, kept our streets, homes and public spaces clean and safe, stacked the shelves to keep us fed and watered, and delivered parcels up and down the country, will no longer be welcome here.

Come January 2021, plans to implement a points-based system, reminiscent of the one in Australia and resulting in the end of what free movement currently exists, will be put in place. Only workers who earn more than £26,000 will be permitted entry into the UK, ‘to encourage the development of a high wage, high skill, productive economy’. 

It seems as though the government have not learned a thing during this crisis, despite the many lessons laid out for them. 

It is a devastating yet transformative time 

The public, however, are beginning to take heed, perhaps because the government’s vested interests and disregard for working-class lives are becoming so glaringly apparent. 

Johnson’s insistence that we end the lockdown in the middle of a pandemic, which is still by no means under control, and the suggestion that he will get things ‘returned to near normality by July’ is only further evidence that he is not interested in facts or safe handling of the crisis. Instead, our lives are being sacrificed so the economy can return to business.

Since the beginning of this crisis, we have seen the complete breakdown of an already failing system. The number of lives lost indicate that for many, this moment is one of tragedy.

However, it is also a time of movement. For example, in response to government plans to prematurely reopen the schools, the teachers’ union has advised their members to continue to do their jobs properly and to protect their students from unnecessary risk and harm by not returning to work until it is safe to do so. Many teachers have joined the union, and the list of areas now refusing to open schools is growing by the day.

Or the recent change in policy over the surcharge (to use the NHS) paid by migrants (including NHS staff) in addition their tax contributions.

When asked about this recently, Boris Johnson was routinely inconsistent. In the same breathe used to praise the migrant workers that he claims saved his life, Johnson insisted ‘[the NHS] needs funding and those contributions actually help us to raise about £900m, and it’s very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources.’  He then made an embarrassing yet incredibly important retraction, resulting in the eradication of the migrant surcharge for NHS workers. Along with this change in policy, there has also been a move for all families of NHS staff who have died from coronavirus to be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK

Shifts in public mood and shifts in policy go hand in hand. It is important to recognise the fact that entire counties are planning to resist government instructions; that the prime minister has made significant u-turns 24 hours after boldly stating it impossible to do so; and that nearly 1,000,000 people have signed a petition for Dominic Cummings to be sacked are all part of the same force.  

These small victories show we must press on

Throughout this crisis, the public has proved far more responsible than the government. Cummings responded to ‘instincts’, and the Conservative government similarly continue to look out for their own, at a time when working as a collective and as a community has become a survival strategy for the rest of us.

In the last week, the government seem to have been working harder than ever before. If only they had worked with the same ambition, dedication and cooperation to preserve the NHS and deal with the Covid crisis, as they have to justify keeping an untrustworthy yet obviously powerful employee in post.

The public has worked hard to make sure lockdown is effective, when those in power have shown this not to be a priority. The public has demanded safer conditions of work for NHS staff and it is fair to say that though there is still a lot to fight for, the little progress that has been made with regards to PPE and testing is a result of those demands.

All these changes in opinion and stance are the result of hard work, vehement campaigning, and pressure, largely from the left.

All this shows what we can achieve, but there is a lot more to be done.  The waving of migrant charges for NHS workers is not enough. No person should have to risk their lives on the frontline to access healthcare. ALL migrants should be exempt from such surcharges, and all migrants should be provided security in the form of some kind of financial support – including and especially in a time of crisis.

And no person should have to be paid a certain amount before they are permitted to build a home in a land that should belong to us all.

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