Thursday 3 July was no ordinary day for the mainly migrant workers at the contractors that supply cleaning services to London Underground.
The workers’ RMT union had called a strike against the cleaners’ pitiful wages and poor conditions, and everyone knew that this would be an important battle.
But for three cleaners who reported to the offices of their GBM Services employer only to find a squad of immigration officers laying in wait for them, it was to be a day of humiliation, rather than protest.
The three men – from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Congo – did vital work to keep the capital running smoothly, but all have been treated like criminals whose very identities are being kept a closely guarded secret.
Each was interviewed then taken into custody.
Two of them have already been removed from Britain. The other is waiting to be deported.
Now campaigners are demanding to know what has happened to the three since their arrest, and whether the company had asked them to report to work at a specific time knowing that immigration officers were awaiting them.
They are also insisting they be told the men’s names.
The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has released details of the operation to Socialist Worker following a request under the Freedom of Information Act. These show careful preparation and prior contact between the agency and GBM Services.
The document “Standard procedure 02-07-2008” reads, “The Officer in charge of the Arrest team made courtesy call to employer confirming that Operation was still going ahead the following day”.
The documents continue, “Three individuals were arrested and detained as follows: Nigerian male, who has agreed to voluntary depart the UK. Congolese male currently in detention scheduled for removal 08-08-08. Sierra Leonean male currently in detention awaiting removal.”
Other papers detail an “entry with consent” to the GBM offices on 3 July. The scene notes read, “Team lead to second floor awaiting arrival of identified offenders. At 10.50 hrs [names blacked out] 2 of the offender[s] have arrived.
“[Names blacked out] are taken to a room on the first floor where the 2 subjects are. [Names blacked out] speaks to subject 1 and [name blacked out] speaks to subject 2.”
The notes then record that all three workers are cautioned, questioned, fingerprinted, searched, handcuffed and then detained.
Union reps are shocked and concerned by the operation which follows the suspensions of a number of workers, including union reps, at some of the cleaning contractors on the grounds that the workers’ national insurance numbers were wrong.
There are urgent questions that need to be answered: Who instigated the immigration operation? Did GBM Services “express concerns about the immigration status” of these three employees? Did the company know if any of the arrested men were RMT members?
Why did the operation take place at a company in dispute with its workers and on the day of a strike?
“These arrests have humiliated those who were arrested,” said Phillip Mambuliya, the chair of the RMT cleaners’ grade. “The government and the company must be shamed for this.
“What crime have these people committed? What have they done to justify this treatment? Why are they called illegal? All they have done is work. They haven’t done anything wrong.”
The case also raises questions about Britain’s policy of sending “illegal workers” back to countries that are unsafe.
“Why has someone been deported to Congo?” asks Clara Osagiede, the secretary of the RMT cleaners’ grade. “It is a war zone.
“That worker should have been allowed to stay in Britain on humanitarian grounds, at the very least.
“We need to find out what has happened to the Sierra Leonean man and get him out of detention. That would be a boost for the union and encourage the cleaners.”
In contrast, the government agency responsible is proud of its actions.
A UK Border Agency spokesperson said, “UKBA will not tolerate illegal working. Newcomers who do not play by the rules break the deal they made with the UK when they entered the country.
“We work with employers where they express concerns about the immigration status of their workforce.”
A GBM spokesperson refused to comment on the operation in the days following it, and the company was unavailable for comment when approached last week.
The UKBA has not released all the reports, minutes and correspondence requested by Socialist Worker. In particular, it has not released the electronic and written correspondence between GBM and the agency in the months of June and July.
Workers should have the right to know whether their personal details will land on the desk of an immigration official.
And until they do, many trade unionists and campaigners will continue to ask questions.
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