the amey case: burn your bridges, save your dignity

by Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marin

Two of the workers sacked by Amey in September 2008, who had fought for reinstatement and compensation, recently lost their legal battle, which had lasted almost a year. A judge made clear on August 10th that the verdict was final and cannot be appealed: the plaintiffs had defamed the company by handing out leaflets where the names of Amey and its manager Laura Jordan were in bold capital letters, something deemed aggressive and ‘inexcusable’ in the English language.

Julio Mayor and Pedro Rengifo thus lost the case, their jobs and the money they had been offered (an attempt to buy their silence: they refused with – and for the sake of – their dignity).

However, they did not feel defeated… Failures can involve gains too. It starkly displayed the persecution of immigrants organising for their rights and showed that solidarity exists. They learned from it, and kept fighting by themselves. They conquered fear and busted myths.

Julio Mayor explains this well, “During negotiations we did what we felt necessary: setting a precedent against the bosses’ abuses. We were facing Amey, a multinational, but their arguments were very weak. We were very keen to show that the manager and Amey had broken the law. We feel satisfied by what we did.”

The fight

It was an exhausting, instructive, long, drawn-out fight with hills and bends. “The Amey case” highlighted a common but deliberately ignored situation: the exploitation of “illegal” immigrants and persecution of those who organise (in unions or otherwise) against it; but above all, the undeniable alliance between employers, immigration police and state bodies to enforce immigration policy. Moreover, it means exploitative companies need not answer for their staff, exploiting them before casting them aside when they become an irritant. To avoid paying wages and improving work conditions, with the words “no papers”, they can have workers locked up. The result: thousands of immigrants mercilessly exploited, arrested then deported in a process denying them no rights and ignoring their protests. Hundreds of companies act with impunity, complicit in the employment of “illegals”: employing them in full awareness of their status, or even giving them the means and information to work… “legally”… An unfair “justice” where foreigners always lose.

There have been other cases like Amey – before, then and since. Bosses hire immigrants, knowing them to be illegal; exploit them; the immigrants protest; Immigration “appear”; wages go unpaid; deportations keep stacking up; the exploiters do it all over again and nothing is done about it… They are not condemned, not penalized.

That is perhaps why some people, determined to stop this cycle, immediately rallied round Julio and his sacked colleagues. CAIC (Campaign Against Immigration Controls) heard of the case and supported it with numerous demonstrations around England, which were also backed by No Borders, the Latin American Workers Association, universities, media, human rights organisations, groups and individuals across the country.

Time was not on the five cleaners’ side, so they had strategy meetings mainly in working hours and Julio and his colleagues worked nights, Monday to Friday.

The obstacles

Moreover, after ACAS called for conciliation, they refused Amey’s offer of £3000 each. Then, Julio recalls “the Prospect union, clearly supporting Amey, argued that the company had spent a lot of money on the disciplinary proceedings and investigations, so we should be more reasonable. But we told them that the fault lay with Amey, not us. Given our stance, Prospect decided to withdraw their legal support.”

For their part, Unite [which had also supported them] began to cave after the Employment Tribunal talks. “At that time three of us were Unite members. The lawyers they assigned to us said that we had no chance of success, we had slandered the company and so were rightly sacked.”

In the course of the dispute many organisations expressed their interest in helping out when the unions would not represent them. Unfortunately, nothing happened. Julio’s perception was that “no-one was interested in our case any longer, since there were only two of us left, not five like there were to begin with.”

Jorge Loaiza and Rubén Jiménez had abandoned the struggle because they had no time for meetings and tribunals. But Rengifo and Julio decided that they would keep going. Their memories stopped them from taking a backwards step, no matter whether they were with or without the unions, with others or alone. They remembered the events of May 2007 when three cleaners were deported and another four sacked.

The background

Days beforehand, the 36 Latin Americans employed by Amey to clean the National Physical Laboratories had determined their fate. Tired of accepting Amey’s abuses – and because they were organised – they began to protest when, without reason, the company decided to cut wages and staff numbers; doubled the workload; permanently re-assigned them, unjustifiably; and disregarded health and safety standards.

At first they believed Amey would re-consider its behaviour, only to be betrayed: Amey called them to a meeting… at which more than 60 immigration police arrived. A raid, in which several were jailed.

Those who survived this ambush re-doubled their protests, verbally and in writing, as individuals and publicly. This time they protested the injustices of working for Amey, and indeed because their workload was doubled when no-one replaced the deported workers. But they also protested the way in which Amey silenced their colleagues. They gave out leaflets explaining the situation, and shouted people’s names and their crimes.

The consequences of their tenacity and courage were however unfavourable and gave little room for hope: they were sacked, because, in the employers’ eyes, “their actions damaged the company’s image”.

Refusing to be intimidated, they demanded Amey appear before an Employment Tribunal, on grounds of unfair dismissal, racial discrimination and shortcomings in health and safety.

They sought reinstatement in their posts and financial compensation for the hardship endured when they were forced to go without any wages.

Then, on 10th February 2009, Amey met with them and their Unite and Prospect representatives. ACAS were also present. Amey wanted to make a deal and offered a third of the pay-off demanded, but no reinstatement. They told them that they needed an answer by the 17th: this was a “no”. The offer was “inappropriate and unfair, given the losses and hardship caused”.

Prospect had advised them to accept Amey’s offer and withdraw the Tribunal case. They warned that if they did not, the “union would withdraw its legal backing”.

And so it was. The Unite withdrew its support, as Julio Mayor explained, “It is a policy of the unions that when one takes away its support, the others do the same out of ‘solidarity’. This makes no sense: when workers join a union, it is because they expect 100% of the benefits of being in the union. Membership also allows you to get backing from certain organisations and campaigns not dependent on the unions, and this helps significantly in developing a higher level of struggle.”

The cutting-loose did not surprise them. Even at that time, in declarations to the press, Julio showed that their withdrawal of support did not seem strange to him: “In the past I have seen the same attitude from unions: to represent or give legal support to a worker before a Tribunal, they must have more than a 60% hope of success. If that is not the case, they will not fight, since the unions will lose face and it will cost them a lot. The unions in this country will only give something up in order to gain something.”

Julio and his comrades knew they had to keep going by themselves, seeking representation independent of the unions, warning: “With them or without them we will continue onwards. We will continue fighting, whatever happens, even if we forfeit Amey’s offer”.

“What other option do we have if they will not meet our request for help? The only options we were left with were to withdraw the Tribunal case or represent ourselves. We chose the latter.”

Yes, they lost, but the experience was positive in teaching them that workers can appear before a Tribunal “without begging for unions’ representation. The unions acted as if they were offering a service to the workers, as if they were doing us a favour, rather than a service which we had previously paid for”.

For this reason, there was success amid the defeat, because although they know that larger numbers have greater chance of victory, now they are not afraid to fight any battle – with support or not – and are determined “to continue helping workers win their rights” and offer their solidarity whenever it may be necessary.

Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marin is an international freelance journalist specialising in Human Rights, Politics and Environment: uribemonic@hotmail.com