When they call Brexit a ‘working-class revolt’, they mean the white British working class

But from Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, to London’s Chinatown, the UK’s vote to leave the EU feels threatening, divisive, and poisonous for Britain’s ethnic minority and migrant communities.

Hsiao-Hung Pai
11 July 2016
London’s Chinatown. Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

London’s Chinatown. Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.A few days before the UK’s EU referendum, I travelled up to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire. I wanted to visit a friend who had been detained there for five months. She came from a working-class family in southern China, and was a language student here until earlier this year. But under home secretary Theresa May’s tougher crackdown on undocumented migrants, she was arrested while working in a Chinese takeaway in Manchester. 

Made increasingly anxious by the living conditions at the detention centre, while waiting to be returned to China, she asked me what the referendum result would do to people from outside of the UK. 

Britain contains so many parallel societies. As I lost hope of helping my detained friend, the referendum’s ‘Leave’ result was announced, with voters chanting that they had ‘taken their country back’. The political and media class are eager to tell us that this is a ‘working-class revolt’, which leaves me puzzled. If this is so, who is my detained friend, and the tens of thousands like her who put together their life savings to travel here and improve their families’ livelihoods? Who are those tens of thousands who have chosen to make this country their home, who have settled here, and want to be part of society? And who are those descendants of theirs who were born and bred British, living in inner cities, struggling to make ends meet? 

I think I understand now: when they say ‘working-class’, they mean the white British working-class. No doubt, this is an anti-establishment vote, and economic insecurity and disenfranchisement form a very real backdrop to the Leave vote among much of the white British working-class. But at the same time, this is an anti-establishment vote misdirected at perceived ‘outsiders’ in Britain: EU migrant workers, Muslims and other ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. Many white British workers voted Leave on the assumption that migrant workers – or any perceived ‘outsiders’ – benefit from the disenfranchisement of the white British working class. 

This is a vote that has divided working-classes across ethnic origins.This is a vote that has divided working-classes across ethnic origins, and has set workers of one group against another.

The reality presented by the Brexiteers is a false one. Many ethnic minority and migrant workers are economically insecure and disenfranchised, too. And on top of that, they have to deal with racism and the impact of Britain’s anti-immigrant policies on a daily basis.

I came down to London’s Chinatown to talk with the workers there. Just as their destiny is determined by immigration policies, so are their views on Brexit. The Chinese workers who have settled here and have formal immigration status all voted Remain. A Chinese supermarket worker on Lisle Street told me that she fears what Brexit will bring to “people like her” (non-natives). As for those without formal immigration status, and asylum seekers awaiting a decision about their status, most of whom toil in restaurant and takeaway kitchens, Brexit means very little. One assistant chef spoke to me during his break outside the restaurant door: “we have no rights here, so Remain or Leave makes no difference to us. We live and work separately from their world anyway.”

“Anything can happen”. Hsiao-Hung Pai for openDemocracy. All rights reserved.

“Anything can happen”. Hsiao-Hung Pai for openDemocracy. All rights reserved.A few feet away from him are a dozen Hungarian workers employed by a Chinese supermarket to do loading work here six days a week. Their jobs in Chinatown were their first in Britain. Since immigration raids became more frequent and, for fear of heavy penalties, employers replaced undocumented Chinese with EU workers several years ago. They tolerate the physically demanding work, only because wages back home are so unbearably low. A week’s pay in London is equivalent to their monthly pay back in Hungary.  

But now, even Chinatown wages won’t last. It looks like the Hungarian workers will be experiencing what happened to the Chinese workers who were employed here before them: immigration controls will be imposed on them in the near future, with an even higher level of job insecurity if they manage to stay. They are feeling very anxious about the unknown future. “We’re worried that we might be sent back,” one said, “We simply don’t know what will happen to us. Anything can happen.”

But when talking to the businesses here, the feelings towards Brexit can be very different. A middle-aged, first-generation British Chinese woman who runs a large restaurant on Gerrard Street refers to Britain as “our country”. She says: “It happened to be my son’s birthday and I said to him that he will always remember this historic day…But I didn’t go out to vote, because it makes no difference either way…My son and his generation think different. They vote Remain.”

I walked into another restaurant, Golden Phoenix, on the same street. Their manager Kenny Li is a Leaver. He’s a second-generation British Malaysian-Chinese and has managed this restaurant for three years. “I wanted Britain to leave the EU because it will be good for the business,” he explained. “I also voted Leave for personal reasons – for the next generation, for my children. I want them to have less competition in the labour market.” 

We simply don’t know what will happen to us. Anything can happen.

But while the Chinese business community sees Brexit mainly in terms of business interests, many British Chinese from all walks of life are much more worried about Brexit’s impact on their place in British society: their rights, safety and well-being. There’s the strong sense that the racism they have always experienced living in this country has been given a new lease of life by the referendum result. 

Hackney-based housing officer and activist Jabez Lam has worked on numerous cases of racist attacks on British Chinese people over the past two decades. “In the last couple of weeks before the referendum, we saw the Leave campaign sending out their message about immigration with poster images and TV adverts suggesting the inadequate NHS, school, housing provision, and the high unemployment are all caused by migration,” he tells me. Lam thinks that decades of hard work on race relations and multiculturalism have been replaced by hate and intolerance: “In the coming months and years, ethnic minorities are going to face an increased hostility and hatred. Physical attacks and abuses on ethnic establishments such as businesses and places of worship will be on the increase.”

Kevin Yang is a postgraduate student from China. Racism has always been part of his life in Britain. “Following the referendum result, we've seen a lot of racist abuse and anti-immigration prejudice on social media, which I find frightening,” he tells me. “Some English people may think Chinese people, including students and migrant workers in Britain, don't care about racism because we’re detached from English society and we’re not willing to communicate with local people,” he says. But that could not be further from the truth: “The reason why students don't want to talk about their horrible experiences is that they feel anxious and unsafe, not because we don’t care.”

Polish and Social Cultural Association, London. Kerim44/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Polish and Social Cultural Association, London. Kerim44/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.These echo the concerns in other minority and migrant communities, as they are faced with legitimised racism and growing hate crimes. In Huntington, Cambridgeshire, there have been reports of signs saying “Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin” posted through the letter boxes of Polish families on the day of the referendum result. Cards carrying racist messages were also distributed outside primary schools. The Polish and Social Cultural Association in west London was vandalised with racist graffiti. 

Barbara Drozdowicz, director of the London-based Eastern European Advice Centre, told me that “racism being legitimised is the biggest problem we’re facing since the Leave vote.” Brexit is intensifying the experience of prejudices that are part and parcel of the working life of many Eastern Europeans in Britain, she says. “We experience racism in workplaces, our kids get bullied at schools – just a few weeks before the referendum, a Polish teenager committed suicide as a result of racist bullying at a school in Cornwall.”

Drozdowicz says: “Because racism is the common experience, many Eastern Europeans simply see it as ‘a price you pay’ for working in Britain. They grew to see it as the norm in this country. Therefore they don’t tend to report racist incidents or take any action.”

The endemic isolation in British society explains why many have suffered racism in silence. There are no support networks for migrants in local communities, and when in need, migrants can only turn to their usually insufficiently-funded community support organisations for advice and help. Or they simply keep quiet. 

Miqdaad Versi, of the Muslim Council of Britain, has collated reports of more than 100 racist incidents since the Leave vote. “While before the perpetrators were usually keyboard warriors, waging their xenophobic battle online, now more and more reports are emerging of real-life physical and verbal confrontations,” the report says. 

It’s clear that these cases of racist abuse are targeting not only those from within the EU, but also anyone who is perceived to be different and ‘foreign’, even if they are born and bred in this country. The referendum campaigns viciously attempted to create divisions among migrant and ethnic minority communities, aiming to turn people against each other (EU workers versus Commonwealth workers is one example of a false division created by UKIP). In reality, the experience of post-referendum racism is shared among all. 
In reality, the experience of post-referendum racism is shared among all.  

Brexit is not a ‘working-class revolt’, but it does reflect the history of defeat and alienation of the British working-class. Central to that defeat has been the decline of working-class organisations; nationalism within trade unions – reflected in the idea of ‘British jobs for British workers’ – seems a symptom of such defeat. Casual, flexible, insecure employment is the norm for large sections of the white working-class, as well as ethnic minority workers. But the latter are often burdened with racial discrimination in workplaces and institutions. There is no imperial nostalgia for them to fall back on. 

Darren Carroll, a Lutonian painter and decorator whom I met when researching for my book Angry White People, is always proud of his working-class background. He sees through how the referendum, like all other Tory initiatives, has divided communities. “When I talk to people, I know that the Leave vote is mostly about immigration, not much about the EU,” he said. 

Darren thinks that the anti-migrant climate created by the Leave vote has been poisonous. It affects him on a personal level, too. “My younger son’s fiancé comes from Lithuania. She’s now applying for a job in Lithuania as a result of Brexit. That means my son will have to move to Lithuania to live. It’s all very well for politicians to tell us that nothing will happen to EU workers in the next two years. It just means that people can’t plan their lives,” he says. “Mentally, she’s already packed her bags and ready to leave. And as long as she’s still living here, she has to live with the fear of the hostility and the thinking that she isn’t welcome here.” 

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