Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Students and supporters at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London are occupying management offices there in protest against the detention and deportation of cleaners at the college last week. According to this account at No Sweat:

'Nine cleaners from the university were taken into detention after a dawn raid by immigration police on Friday. Five have already been deported, and the others could face deportation within days. One has had a suspected heart attack and was denied access to medical assistance and even water. One was over 6 months pregnant. Many have families who have no idea of their whereabouts.

The cleaners won the London Living Wage and trade union representation after a successful “Justice for Cleaners” campaign that united workers of all backgrounds and student activists. Activists believe the raid is managers’ “revenge” for the campaign. Immigration officers were called in by cleaning contractor ISS, even though it has employed many of the cleaners for years. Cleaning staff were told to attend an ‘emergency staff meeting’ at 6.30am on Friday (June 12). This was used as a false pretext to lure the cleaners into a closed space from which the immigration officers were hiding to arrest them.

More than 40 officers were dressed in full riot gear and aggressively undertook interrogations and then escorted them to the detention centre. Neither legal representation nor union support were present due to the secrecy surrounding the action. Many were unable to communicate let alone fully understand what was taking place due to the denial of interpreters. SOAS management were complicit in the immigration raid by enabling the officers to hide in the meeting room beforehand and giving no warning to them. The cleaners were interviewed one by one. They were allowed no legal or trade union representation, or even a translator (many are native Spanish speakers). The cleaners are members of the Unison union at SOAS. They recently went out on strike (Thursday 28 May) to protest the sacking of cleaner and union activist Jose Stalin Bermudez.

Woody Guthrie's Deportees

The experience of the deported SOAS cleaners puts me in mind of the great Woody Guthrie song, The Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (often referred to as Deportee or sometimes Deportees). According to Raymond Crooke: 'On January 29, 1948, a plane crashed near Los Gatos Canyon in California. The fatalities consisted of four Americans and 28 illegal immigrant farm workers who were being deported back to Mexico. Woody Guthrie noticed that radio and newspaper coverage of the incident only gave the names of the American casualties, referring to the Mexican victims merely as "deportees." His response was to write a poem in which he assigned names to the dead: Juan, Rosalita, Jesús and María' .

Woody Guthrie actually wrote these lyrics as a poem and it was not set to music - by Martin Hoffman - for another ten years. It was popuarlised by Pete Seeger and then became something of a folk and country standard, recorded by many artists including The Kingston Trio (1964), Julie Felix, The Byrds (on the 1969 album Ballad of Easy Rider), Joan Baez and Dolly Parton (on the soundrack album to 9 to 5). Bruce Springsteen has covered it too.

One of my favourite versions is by Woody Guthrie's son Arlo Guthrie with Emmylou Harrris:

There's also a rousing Bob Dylan & Joan Baez rendition performed on the Rolling Thunder Revue, at Fort Collins, Colorado, 23 May 1976:

The song has become an Irish standard too, covered by The Emeralds in the 1960s and later by acts including The Dubliners and The Wolfe Tones. The most celebrated Irish version is by Christy Moore - the song is included in the Christy Moore Songbook (Dublin: Brandon, 1984), from where I learnt this song and many others. Here's Christy performing it in 1979:

The deported SOAS cleaners forced on to planes have not come to the same tragic end as the 1948 farm workers, but the song's description of the conditions of their precarious labour is not so very far removed from the present situation: 'Some of us are illegal and some are not wanted, Our work contract's out and we have to move on, 600 miles to that Mexican border, They chase us like outlaws, like thieves on the run'.

The SOAS cleaners also experience the complicity between their employers and the immigration authorities. Companies like ISS profit from employing migrant labour and also benefit from the insecurity of the workforce - using the implicit threat of calling in the Borders & Immigration Agency to keep people in line. Cleaners at SOAS go on strike and a few weeks later the company calls in the Border cops.... you do the math.

Mexican workers in the '40s had a similar experience of such complicity. Under an agreement between Mexico and the U.S. (1947) "undocumented Mexicans who were sent back across the border could return to the U.S. as temporary contract laborers; during the life of their contracts, they could not be again deported. In practice, employers often called Border Patrol stations to report their own undocumented employees, who were returned, momentarily, to border cities in Mexico, where they signed labor contracts with the same employers who had denounced them. This process became known as 'drying out wetbacks' or 'storm and drag immigration.' 'Drying out' provided a deportation-proof source of cheap seasonal labor." [Dick J. Reavis, Without Documents, New York, 1978, p. 39.]

Most of all the song reminds us of the humanity of those labelled as 'deportees' or 'illegals' - real people with real names and real lives. People like the following picked up at SOAS last week - Heidi Campos who left her husband to go to a work meeting on Friday and never came home, being deported to Colombia instead; Luzia Venancio from Brazil, 6 months pregnant and put on a plane; Laura (Alba) Posada from Colombia; Marina Silva and Manuel Zeballos Saldana from Bolivia, Rosa Aguilera (de Perez) from Nicaragua who came to England to visit her hospitalised husband...

More about the occupation at http://freesoascleaners.blogspot.com, send messages of support to freesoascleaners@googlemail.com.

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