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May Day Solidarity Conference in Barnsley - a report

South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) | 12.05.2009 16:21 | Anti-racism | Globalisation | Workers' Movements | Sheffield

On May Day 2009. the magnificent 150 year old Barnsley Miners Hall was the setting for a conference bringing together militant trade unionists from Yorkshire and asylum seekers and migrant workers from around the world...

The hand-embroidered banners of National Union of Mineworkers’ branches (mainly) past and present hung next to slogans painted on old curtains reading “Asylum Seekers’ Right to Work”. The caretaker of the hall proudly explained NUM history with reference to the miners lodge banners and stained glass windows showing coalmining scenes. Next to the Yorkshire NUM’s glass cabinet of gifts from trade unionists around the world there stalls and displays from Women Asylum Seekers Together, No Borders, Sheffield’s Congolese community, ASSIST (a charity supporting destitute asylum seekers), Permanent Revolution and a display of anti-racist poetry books.

The conference was called by the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) and Barnsley Trades Council to bring the issues of migration and workers’ rights together on May Day. When the chair opened the conference, urging us to enjoy our historic surroundings there were 75 people, from 14 countries, listening.

Short speeches set the themes of the conference: that immigration controls were controls on the right to work; our opposition to the theme of “British Jobs for British Workers” and our support for workers’ rights regardless of immigration status; that migration included the millions of British people who travelled freely to enjoy the sun or high wages of other countries. Speakers recalled the solidarity shown by black South African miners to the British NUM in 1984 and the support from trade unionists from Eastern Europe 25 years ago during the British miners’ strike. The speaker from the Justice from Cleaners campaign talked about how they had gone from the “invisible” cleaners of the London offices of transnational corporations to active and successful UNITE union activists. Union members from the PCS, NUT and UNISON unions gave examples of what internationalism meant; Juliet a Nigerian asylum seeker from Leeds spoke emotionally about the Home Office’s recent attempt to deport her husband and their successful resistance.

The 4 morning workshops looked at “Experiences of the Asylum System”; “How to Organise Campaigns”; “Equal Access to Public Services” and “Organising Migrant Workers”. We didn’t waste time listening to “big name experts” and drew on personal experiences to better understand and summarise what we knew. Sometimes the smallest of details can say it all: in the “Experiences of the Asylum System” workshop Claude from Cameroon talked about being imprisoned at Yarls Wood detention centre with his family, including his young daughter. She hadn’t eaten for a day and was crying. When Claude demanded some milk it eventually came: a lump of frozen milk which the detention centre warder refused to defrost.

We had lunch sitting on the lawn in the sun outside the Yorkshire NUM office and some time to get to know each other. Thanks to SYMAAG and to Mike for packing 70 bags of Yorkshire delicacies.

After dinner, Actors For Human Rights performed their play “The Illegals” based on the personal testimonies of migrant workers in London. There were 3 more workshops: “The Right to Work”; “Legal Rights at Work”. During the report back from the “Combating the BNP” workshop someone from Barnsley Trades Council told the conference that they’d just had a call from an asylum-seeker friend in Bradford whose house had “just been set alight”. We agreed on a joint trade union/migrant demonstration against the BNP’s presence in Barnsley town centre.

We didn’t agree on everything: some people wanted a vote for any party against the BNP in the European elections, others pointed to the racism of most of the other parties. Some of us advocate “No Borders” while others want reform of the immigration system but we listened to each other with respect and planned joint action where we were in agreement. As John from Manchester put it: “This was a highly successful and well organised event, with lots of ideas emerging for taking forward the struggle. Visitors like myself were made to feel very welcome and all who wanted to make a contribution were able to do so.”

There will be another report of our conference: one which goes through all of the points made in the workshops and report-backs and draws out the action that we agreed to take. These are just my impressions of the sunny May Day when workers from around the world met each other and started to find out what united them.

South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG)
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