Turning survival into resistance:

In preparation for this panel we were told that we must be focussed on questions of vision and strategy. It’s made me realise how little chance we have to dream. Neo-liberal capitalism, the ineluctable logic of the market, it all seems so "obvious" so "natural" that it has stifled our rejuvenating human capacity to imagine. It is imagination that is required for our re-visioning of the world. But let’s try.

Let us try to imagine a world where no one is forced to move because of poverty, or social exclusion, ethnic or religious hatred, injustice or environmental degradation. Let us imagine a world where all those who wish to move, to experience new ways of life, to meet up with friends and kin, to develop themselves to participate in life with other communities, can move. This is a world without immigration controls and borders limiting the mobility of people. But migration (forced and voluntary) is not an isolated phenomenon. It is only one of an interconnected set of linkages between two or more places related to the political, economic and socio-cultural domains. This world without immigration controls then will perforce be a world of economic equality and social justice, where all have a living wage, where the reproductive labour of developing individuals and communities is not regarded as secondary to productive labour, where the environment is not ravaged

This imaginary world is so qualitatively different, that imagining how to get there, from where we are now, is perhaps even more difficult than imagining the vision. But in our recognition of this gulf we can too easily ignore our strengths. While capital has gleaming tower blocks, Hiltons, air-conditioned financial centres in the heart of the South, labour has people, networks, the global south located everywhere, from the margins to the heart of the metropolis, polishing the doors, sweeping the streets, ironing the shirts, making the sandwiches. And in key sectors: agriculture, construction and domestic labour. Often these people have great experiences, certainly an appreciation of the power of the state, new perspectives and new ways of organising. They bring with them ready made international networks. Migration is a powerful agent of change.

Of course, people do not move to infiltrate the sources of capitalist power. Some move to survive, because their basic needs cannot be met or because of wars or repression, and some move to improve the lives of themselves and their families – to be able to afford an education for their children, for example. And let us not forget that there is a market for their labour, exploitable, low-cost and disposable. For us there are two questions a) how to turn the quest for individual or family survival and betterment and turn it into mass political action, an act of resistance? And b) how to construct new alternatives out of resistance?

To help us discuss these questions I will draw on our experiences of organising migrant domestic workers in London. There has been a London based organisation of migrant domestic workers since 1987. Called Waling Waling, now the United Workers’ Association, it has some 4,000 members of 30 different nationalities, from Tanzania to Peru. It 1989 it divided into two, the workers organisation, and the supporters’ organisation, Kalayaan. Until we won our campaign for independent immigration status for domestic workers in private households, virtually all the workers were undocumented. Undocumented migrants are alleged to be extremely difficult to organise, and so are workers in private households, but our experience tells us that, if people need to organise, and if this is done in a creative way, responding to people’s current experiences and practical limitations then this can be done. Moreover, having won our original campaign our membership has changed. Many have different priorities and new demands. We have learned the importance of recognising and respecting this, that for some people the winning of the campaign marked a different type of engagement with the organisation. It is important to recognise that not everybody wants to or can be a 24/7 political activist, and that we all have different capacities and means of political and social engagement


Turning survival into resistance…..

Waling Waling was established when CFMW recognised a pattern among the people coming to use its services: that they had entered the UK with wealthy employers, had either been given visitors visas or had the name of the employer stamped on their passport, and had therefore become "illegal" when, having been subjected to abuse, or non-payment of wages, they had been driven to leave their employer. When this group of undocumented workers came together – only 14 in all at first, it was clear that simply being together, in a safe space with people who shared similar experiences, was of benefit. It was an opportunity to be "normal", to be open and unafraid[1]. It was clear that individuals needed support and services, and that one of the root causes of their difficulties was immigration status. This then was an issue that could serve to unite and mobilise people. So the decision was taken to offer services within the context of political action and organising. We began to campaign for a change in the immigration legislation that tied domestic workers to their employer, and to call for the regularisation of all who had entered under the old system and lost their papers. This aim was limited – certainly in contrast to the grand vision that I’ve just set out, but its attainment was possible. Moreover, it wasn’t just the possibility of regularisation that would benefit migrants, but participation in the process of attempting to affect change. I would like to offer this as a component of shifting from survival to resistance that we have learned: the setting of attainable goals that will have concrete benefits for people.

It will be no news to anyone either that collective action and organising is key too, but recognising diversity and difference while maintaining unity is a constant struggle. Coming together as undocumented domestic workers, rather than as migrants organised around country of origin was, as far as the UK is concerned, a new development. But, although identifying this commonality was crucial, this group of workers, no more than any other, is not a homogenous group. Members came from different class backgrounds, different religious affiliations, different educations. While some had come via a third country and had taken a decision to become an international migrant, others had been brought with their employers straight from their country of origin and international migration was no choice of theirs. And while we’re talking about differences let’s not forget that men work as domestic workers too. Not only were there people of different nationalities, but of different ethnicities – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims from Sri Lanka for instance. It is easy to replicate structures of relative advantage particularly since these work within a broader context. Thus it is easier for lighter-skinned, non-Muslim, English speakers to find work than say black Africans. So some people have greater opportunities to negotiate slightly better employment conditions, making it easier for them to attend meetings and be active in organisations. Negative stereotypes, the ascription of personal qualities to skin colour, nationality, region and so on work not only to divide indigenous workers from migrants, but to divide migrants one from another. Breaking these boundaries, trying to build a new paradigm – this too is resistance. We have found drama to be a useful tool in this, it can help overcome language differences, and allow for the exploration of differences and the disruption of stereotypes. We hope that we can use drama more widely within the organisation, particularly now some of the workers have trained as drama trainers. Crucially it can make organising and education fun. Asha from India described how she had worked from as far back as she could remember, and that drama was her first time to play. How she enjoyed it! When people only have one day off a week – if that, then we have to accept that most of them won’t want to spend it in meetings. To turn survival to resistance we must be creative, encourage people to play and to dream while they organise. We want to be more innovative – we’re carrying out swimming lessons at the moment, and want to try singing and artwork.

Networking, linking to other struggles, that too is crucial to turning survival to resistance. Our members were exposed to the struggles of other working people in the UK through the relation with organised labour, in particular the Transport and General Workers Union. They both supported individual members – even the simple provision of a membership card that could constitute an official form of ID made a big difference to people’s lives, and provided employment advice and support. The trade union was also our way into formal politics, lobbying and high level campaign work. The union tolerated a pragmatic and essentially instrumental attitude to unions with the long term aim of developing partnership and an appreciation of the importance of collective action. Supporting undocumented members was a significant step for the T&G – not many unions in the UK at that time were disposed to work with undocumented migrants. 


Construction of new possibilities

But how do these strategies for transforming survival into resistance become more than just reactive? How do they lead to the construction of new possibilities rather than simply a rejection of the old set of conditions?

Winning the campaign forced us to negotiate with the state and that created new challenges. I won’t go into the difficulties we experienced with the regularisation process, though we did learn some hard and important lessons and I am more than happy to share these with anybody who is interested. I want to emphasise however for those anti-globalisation activists who are not working with migrants and refugees that, if we are focussed on the global mobility of capital then there is a logic to viewing nation states as a bulwark of protection against globalised forces, but if we are focussed on the global mobility of the poor of the world then such an approach becomes deeply problematic and indeed susceptible to the manipulations of the far right and of fascism. Go to the militarised borders to see the face of the state, the barbed wire, the guns, hi-tech spying and tracking devices, detention camps. Somewhere, in the international airports many of us passed through, there will have been people held in cells against their wills, ready to be forced on to planes by the forces of the state. In the knowledge of this, negotiating with state forces can seem a betrayal – perhaps it is. There is certainly not much point in negotiating with the state about how exactly to achieve our vision of a borderless world. But as a result of this necessary last phase of our campaign we have 4000 organised people, formerly undocumented, who have their papers which makes a material difference to the lives of some of the most marginalized.

Our current UK campaigns are to make illegal the holding by an employer of a migrant worker’s passport and to make it illegal to refuse to employ a domestic worker on the grounds of colour. We are also working with other organisations in different European countries for the regularisation of domestic workers and for a  proper visa status to be given them. But we believe that the work that we have done and continue to do in the construction of new forms of community organising with political purpose not just instrumental, to achieve certain specific goals, but is a part of re-visioning our world. Bringing people together, exploring the factures between us, analysing where to mend and where to insert our crowbars opens new possibilities.


[1] Ten years later this organisation of undocumented workers organised a huge dinner dance in the Hilton in London. A glamorous gathering of hundreds in a hotel – what a fantastic act of resistance, for they were all "illegal".

Leave a comment