Over 200 restaurant employees and supporters marched through Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown on Thursday of last week. They demanded “an end to racial discrimination” and chanted “It’s no crime to work.”
The workers were taking part in a three-hour business strike in protest against the largest immigration raid in the capital this year held the previous week.
Forty nine Chinese workers were arrested for “illegal working” during the busy lunch hour period on 11 October when 100 immigration staff and police officers raided five Chinatown restaurants.
These were the Royal Dragon, the Luxuriance Peking Cuisine, the Golden Dragon, the London Hong Kong Restaurant and the Special Zone.
The operation in Chinatown was part of the government’s intensified crackdown on illegal working.
The home office announced its Illegal Working Action Plan earlier this year and has stepped up workplace raids. Each week there are 60 raids in London.
For the Chinese community, this is racial scapegoating.
“They target us because they want to win votes and they believe that Chinese people are politically indifferent and we won’t fight back,” said a protesting waiter.
The London Chinatown Chinese Association (LCCA) said, “The Border and Immigration Agency’s (BIA) operation has had a tremendously negative impact on London Chinatown.
“The media coverage of it has led to a 40 percent business decline since the raid.”
Robert Lee, manager of the Golden Dragon, said, “Thirty officers stormed into my restaurant.
“Three of my waiters and seven kitchen workers were treated like terrorists, pushed around, interrogated and handcuffed.
“My staff speak little English, and were so frightened by the presence of so many officers that some of them couldn’t answer questions.”
The majority of those arrested were Malaysian Chinese workers. “My Malaysian friends have been deported,” said a waiter from the Special Zone restaurant. “I am very angry with the way this operation treated Chinese workers.
“We are only here to make a living. The raid violated our dignity and our human rights.”
One worker at the Luxuriance, who was arrested during the raid, was released after ten hours of detainment as he was found to have legal status. He was deeply traumatised by the experience.
“I was handcuffed and thrown into a van like a criminal,” he said. “My request for water and food was ignored during my detainment. I felt so weak that I fainted on my release.
“I have no confidence in BIA’s competence. I suffered as a result of their bureaucratic mistake. How many people have suffered like me in their raids?
“Britain boasts of democracy and human rights. But my experience at the hands of the BIA left me in serious doubt about this.
“I was shocked to find that we Chinese could be targeted and subjected to such humiliation and injustice.”
Rolf Toolin, BIA’s deputy director of London and the south east region, came to Chinatown to talk to the employers.
He gave his personal apology to the released worker, but he added, “I am not apologising for my department. We will not have the permission to publicise our apology.”
The BIA is a new executive agency of the home office. It has taken over the responsibilities of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate for managing immigration controls in Britain.
Toolin has made a deal with the Chinatown employers over illegal immigration. “We will work together,” he said.
“There will be no further raid on Chinatown until employers are educated on immigration issues.
There will be consultations before action.”
But, as Chinese employers work closer with immigration authorities and are given more power, the interests of the undocumented workers will be further marginalised.
As community activist Jabez Lam put it, “Employers and workers are not on equal footing.
“The core of the problem are immigration laws that are out of touch with reality and criminalise working people.
“The only way out is to regularise the status of unauthorised workers.”
While Chinatown employers were left with promises from the BIA after this effective business strike, many workers believe that the nightmare of immigration intervention will not go away.
They will struggle with a low wage and long working hours, and will continue to work in fear of arrest and deportation.
A kitchen worker said, “Our space for survival is already being squeezed out. The situation will get a lot worse next year, when the British government brings in new rules.”
He couldn’t go on the protest because his employer wasn’t among those on strike.
He said, “The BIA may not dare to raid Chinatown like that again. But they’ll work closely with the employers, who will be compelled to check our status and make our lives hell.”