TUC Update: General Secretary publicly endorses 'Let Them Work' - Refugee Council
September 11, 2008

TUC Update: General Secretary publicly endorses ‘Let Them Work’

By Tim, Director of Communications

As you’ll have read in Jonathan’s blog, a small delegation of Zimbabwean trade unionists travelled from London, Leicester and High Wycombe to come to the TUC  congress. Luka, Crispen, Pelanyi and Matthew have been refused asylum and so are forbidden to work. But they use their time productively, particularly through their active membership of the Zimbabwe Association, and we discussed how Refugee Council and the association could work more closely on wining back the entitlement to work.

One of delegation Matthew, is a maths and chemistry teacher, and later, at the Let them Work reception, he talked with the deputy general secretary of a Scottish teacher’s union who said how short schools in Scotland are of teachers like him. Such a clear example of the madness of the current situation!

The motion to the congress wasn’t, in the end, called (congress has a crowded agenda) but there is still one day to go and so hope remains. Meanwhile, people were gathering at the Friend’s Meeting House.  As local refuges and activists mingled and chatted with congress delegates, the giant pledge board arrived, carried by Bob, our Head of Campaigns, and Wilf, the TUC Race Equality officer. Since the morning, even more union general secretaries had signed up – more than 20 in total now!

All the big unions were up there – like Unite, Unison and GMB – as well as others, ranging from the Musicians Union to the Prison Officers Association. Between them these unions represent literally millions of British workers. The campaign has been much helped by the personal commitment of the TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, who took precious time out of his hideously crowded congress diary to come along to the reception and talk with many people. 

As Jonathan pointed out, the previous night Brendan had been dining with the prime minister, no doubt in one of Brighton’s fancier hotels. This evening the buffet, cooked by local refugees, was more humble, but just as delicious.

Our chief executive Donna Covey addressed the meeting, pointing out that this campaign fitted in with the union movement’s long history of fighting for justice for marginalised groups.  Also there was Emma, the new CEO of STAR, the student campaign group on refugee issues, which is getting involved with the work campaign. Watch out for student actions in the coming months.

The most moving speeches came from two people at the sharp end of the ban on work – Tendai and Luka.  Luka, one of the most tireless refugee campaigners in the UK, told us of how he was a tool maker back in Zimbabwe and had designed a new sort of furnace. Clearly, he has the sort of industrial engineering skills that would benefit the UK economy.  But, of course, he’s not able to use them.

So the current situation can look depressing. But the mood of the day was upbeat and optimistic.  As the local refugees and activists dispersed into the evening, and the London crowd walked to the station, there was a strong sense that with such strong union support we can win this campaign.