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The Other Workforce – Migrant Night Workers

In the past month I took two early morning flights, which brought me to take the public bus around three, four o’clock to get to the airport bus stop. As dreadful as this night trip to the airport can be, as a sociologist I am always intrigued to see the calibre of people who take public transport at this time of the day.

Bearing in mind that my bus trip is from Elephant & Castle to Liverpool Street Station, what I observed so far is that when I take the bus around three thirty my bus stop was dominated by South American men and women who were heading for their cleaning jobs. On the other hand, when taking the bus past four o’clock I saw a bigger representation of African women. Whilst it is certain that I would have to take many more buses at these two times and interview people to validate this observation, it would be interesting to see if there is a division of labour and time according to one’s ethnic background.

What brought me to write about the night workforce was a repeated annoying incidence. It has happened to me twice in the last three times I took the bus at these hours of the night that the bus will skip my bus stop despite people waving because it is too full. This happens often in London, however, during the night there is a bus every twenty minutes if you are lucky and if that one bus skips you how can you get to work on time?

I had the luxury of stopping a cab in order to catch my airport bus but certainly others cannot count on such options. Also, would it be sustainable and humane to expect these workers to leave the house half an hour earlier to accommodate for such inconveniences? This public transport issue reminded me of how there is least support and protection for those who take on the most inconvenient jobs.

By chance these reflections come hand in hand with the speech the Queen made today at the State Opening of Parliament, where enforcing stricter laws against illegal immigrants was the focal topic. Amongst the new regulations, migrants’ access to the NHS will be restricted whereby GPs may ask for your ID and immigration status before visiting you and short-term migrants will be requested to pay for services that are free for others. In addition, landlords and driving schools are now obliged to ask for people’s immigration status.

Does this imply that the UK government no longer believes that healthcare is for all? Isn’t it in their interest to provide services such as sexual health clinic also to immigrants? The message behind these new rules is, as the Queen put it, is to “ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute, and deter those who will not”, automatically assuming that illegal immigrants “come here and expect something for nothing” as Prime Minister David Cameron stated.

It is clear that there is need for society to challenge the latter assumption more ardently. The Queen in her speech also said that this government is backing families who “want to work hard and get on”. Who said that families of illegal migrants do not have the same determination? Why is their contribution to this country, under precarious conditions, not recognised? In fact, on immigration it was refreshing to hear Ed Miliband of the Labour Party speak about it from a different angle and emphasise on the importance of a crackdown on all employers who ignore the minimum wage and use cheap foreign labour.

Illegality is used to describe a person above all other traits, such as being hardworking, determined, responsible or dedicated to the family. Whilst one should certainly aspire for a legal migrant status or residence, in the meantime there is need to protect those whom the Queen referred to i.e. those who want to work hard and get on – but regardless of whether you are legal or illegal.

Ayako Iba

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