The Struggle for Migrant and Racial Justice in Britain: Lessons from History

5 March 2021
Akram Salhab

On Thursday, February 18th, Migrants Organise hosted the second in our #SolidarityKnowsNoBorders webinar series The Struggle for Migrant Justice in Britain: Lessons from History. The event aimed to focus discussion on the immense tradition of migrant and racial justice organising in British history, and consider how past struggles could inform existing organising and campaigning. 

The webinar hosted three excellent speakers, each of whom spoke as an academic as well as an activist, about their work and research, and its importance for contemporary organising efforts. 

The Grunwick Dispute

Professor Sundari Anitha, author of Striking Women: Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet, and professor at the University of Lincoln spoke about the historic Grunwick strike and its place in trade union history. She discussed how new migrants into Britain are always placed at the bottom of the labour market, and the tactics used by managers exploit migrant workers at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories, and the gendered elements of this exploitation. 

She described how the strike began by female Asian workers instigated solidarity from across the wider trade union movement, the first time trade unions had come out en masse to support migrant workers. She emphasised the importance of the experience as a watershed moment in British history, and instructive as to both the potential of workers solidarity, as well as the limits of trade union solidarity in Britain.

No Pass Laws Here!

Dr Kathryn Medien, lecturer in Sociology at the Open University spoke about the No Pass Laws Here! campaign that was waged against a previous instantiation of the Hostile Environment introduced in the 1980s. Her work uncovered the similarities between existing policies and previous ones, and identified the means of struggle adopted by migrants organisations, law centres and other bodies in raising awareness and creating resistance to the policies. 

She situated these efforts within the wider anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles of the period, focusing on how the No Pass Laws Here! campaign used language that emphasised the links between racist pass laws in South Africa and the discriminatory policies against migrant and BAME communities in Britain. Both the language, slogans, strategies and tactics of these campaigns are necessary to understand and learn from in order identify how present campaign work can retain broad, inclusive and ambitious principles. 

The Right to Fully Belong

Colin Prescod spoke about his experience or race and integration, exploring the process of coming to awareness experienced by those described as ‘migrants’. Colin is a sociologist and Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, but situated his talk within the struggles in the North Kensington neighbourhood of London in which he lives. 

In his talk he emphasised the importance of solidarity and working across communities. He explained how, in North Kensington, struggles were built by migrant/BAME communities but were strengthened by the work of others who stood alongside them with information, solidarity and infrastructure which strengthened community support structures. He argued that ‘building community’ meant active work across groups to create the basis for shared struggle along collective principles.

He also highlighted the different roles of personal racism, prejudice and insults in the street and the racism of the state. This distinction has been described by Ambalavaner Sivanandan as between ‘the racism that discriminates and the racism that kills’, highlighting how racism generated by the state played a much more active role in material oppression and death in migrant and BAME communities. 

Throughout the event the focus was on drawing ideas and inspiration for our struggles today. To support the work of Migrants Organise, and to engage in the movement we are attempting to build, please read and sign up to the FIRM Charter.

You can also signup to the next webinar in the series entitled Cases into Causes, Causes into a Movement: How can Individual Campaigns Lead to Collective Justice and Structural Change?which will look at how  individual justice campaigns can lay the groundwork for broader efforts as systems change.

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