Dozens of London’s radical action groups headed to the Byron Burger central branch to protest against the exploitation, entrapment and deportation of migrant workers
On Monday August 1, hundreds of activists gathered outside of a central London Byron Burger chain to speak out against the entrapment and subsequent deportation of the restaurant’s employees that took place last month. Invited to a fake ‘training day’, migrant workers employed by Byron Burger – many of whom had been loyal to the company for four or five years – were met by immigration police who deported them in handcuffs.
Taken away without the chance to even say goodbye or collect belongings, the migrant workers were forced to leave partners (in one case a pregnant wife) and homes behind, trapped like animals and disposed of overnight. The hashtag #BoycottByron caught fire across the web and a protest was organised in solidarity with the workers. Hundreds attended the demo outside the Byron chain in Holborn and despite the rain people chanted, rallied and protested throughout the evening.
“What has the Home Office said to Byron to make them chuck their workers?” a protester asked through her megaphone. “We need to stand up because the changes in immigration laws are turning our burger bars, our educators and our landlords into border control!” Armed with placards, people took up the whole street in peaceful protest.
“Byron are disgusting, they have no respect for people and they need to be told how shit they are,” one activist said. “I do think that things are going to get worse, so we need to take it to the streets, build support and listen to one another,” she said. “Oh and fuck Theresa May – she’s a cunt.”
Many claim that what Byron did is a direct consequence of Theresa May stepping into power. May is known for her notorious desire to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants in the UK. A member of black activism group, Dissident, spoke out against the new government. “People say what happened with Byron was okay because it’s the law,” they shouted, “but the law doesn’t say rally your workers in a building under fake training, lock the doors and call immigration enforcement! It’s important to remember that some laws need to be changed.”
“Yeah – racist laws!” one crowd member shouted back.
“No-one is illegal!” another said.
Passion ran high. At the demo one thing was clear: it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, everybody there shared a concern and empathy for the exploitation of human rights, the need for safety, love and the right to live a free and happy life.
A mic was passed around throughout the rally, allowing members from various London-based groups to be heard – activists from The London Latinx, Movement for Justice, and The Green Party all came forward. Surrounding crowds hollered and honked horns but fell silent for each speaker in order to listen.
“Do you think that I wanted to leave my son and not see him for two years because I had to find work?” said a Bolivian woman, holding a ‘No Human Is Illegal’ placard tightly in her hand. “People have to work here because we were not given many chances back home. Why? Because people from Europe came in and exploited our country!”
The crowed roared in agreement. “Remember why we are here in the first place!” she shouted, “because we were left with nothing. Our women were raped, our communities were exploited, our resources were taken away.”
As one of the most underpaid and overworked areas of trade, it comes as a surprise that hospitality is one of the most un-unionised working sectors in the country – but this can be blamed largely on the silencing by large corporations.
A leader at the demo spoke to the crowd of times when hotel workers had tried to organise, before being met with armed police. “We desperately need solidarity in an industry where 77 per cent of the workers are migrants,” she said. “Papers or no papers, wherever you are from, we are people working side by side and being exploited side by side.”
A member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants also spoke up on the issues of legality. “A lot of people say that what Byron did was okay because the migrants were ‘illegal’,” he said, “but so were we not so very long ago! Who the fuck knows who is going to be illegal in five, ten years time? I mean, Theresa May is out prime minister!”
“It’s totally arbitrary,” echoed another activist, “Anne Frank was illegal, Palestinians are illegal in virtually all of their land and it’s still legal for cops to kill people of colour and get away with it!” The hundreds responded with, ‘Theresa May, Theresa May, how many burgers did you eat today?’
“We desperately need solidarity in an industry where 77 per cent of the workers are migrants. Papers or no papers, wherever you are from, we are people working side by side and being exploited side by side”
As the crowds began to disperse, I caught up with another protester from London Mexican Solidarity – a group of Mexicans living in the UK who are attempting to raise awareness of the current ‘war on drugs’. “Because of the ‘war on drugs’ crisis more than one hundred thousand people are dead, hundreds are displaced from their communities and more than 26 people have disappeared,” he told me. “We are raising awareness of this, but are also here in solidarity with the migrant workers of Byron. We need to build solidarity between different groups – what we see in Mexico is a fight against poor people to make profit – this is what is happening on a global scale.”
It’s true – there are human crises happening all over the world, where corporations are carrying out acts that go against integral human rights, and although we are all fighting individual battles, the consequences of austerity connect us.
What Byron has done to workers across the fifteen of their London branches may only seem minute in the grand scale of things. But put it into the wider context global humanitarian issues – the refugee crisis, the war on drugs, the war on terror – and we can see how their venal disposal of workers only feeds into the continuing exploitation and killing of those who have faced oppression for centuries. It’s only in taking to the streets, in showing anger and in building bridges with one another that we can begin to have a hope of beating these systems.