So, here’s an unpopular opinion to release into the world:
I don’t see what Byron is supposed to have done wrong.
The gourmet burger chain – previously thrust into the media spotlight as George Osborne’s late-night indulgence of choice – has enjoyed 24 hours of social media’s most vitriolic virtue signalling after 35 of its migrant workers were found to lack the right to work, having, it appears, secured employment through the use of falsified identity documents.
The circumstances in which this came to light are unclear, but in any event Byron cooperated with the Home Office, and consequently the workers were, on 4 July this year, arrested and detained. Some have subsequently apparently been deported.
The exact circumstances have not been confirmed, but a number of outlets have suggested that Byron hand-delivered their workers to the relevant enforcement and prosecutorial authorities by organising a “training day” at which, instead of PowerPoint slides of Double Bacon Cheeses and courgette fries, they were greeted by immigration officials. Byron has released a statement as follows:
But as with all such modern tales, we are beyond truth. What matters, the narrative splutters, is that the big mean corporate baddie collaborated with the feds and sold out its poor, exploited workforce, some of whom had devoted years of faultless service, in what must only be characterised as an act proximate to a hate crime, and must be duly sanctioned in the court of public opinion, boycotted by all right thinking people, its CEO dragged naked through the streets of Shoreditch smeared in burger sauce and pickle juice.
Piling in with the rallying cry of the intellectually dispossessed, deputy leader of the Greens, Amelia Womack, opined that “the bosses at Byron should be utterly ashamed of themselves for turning these people’s lives upside down”.
To which I, as an inhabitant of those rather less excitable courts of law, would respectfully say this:
Your outrage is mystifying. Or, at best, utterly misdirected.
Byron, like any employer – nay, like any company or individual based in this country – is required to comply with the law. It hurts to start with such a facile point, but needs, it appears, must.
And the law says at least two rather important things in this context. Firstly, that it is a criminal offence – punishable by an unlimited fine and up to 5 years in prison – for a person or a company employing someone knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the employee is disqualified from employment by reason of their immigration status. That’s not Byron’s company handbook talking – that’s sections 21 and 22 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, as enacted by our democratically elected Parliament. If you find out that you have accidentally employed someone without the right to work, and you continue to employ them, you are committing a crime.
Also the position, with reference I’m afraid to that same unfashionable commitment to “the rule of law”, is this: those workers, if employed on the basis of fraudulent identification documents, may have committed criminal offences contrary to section 4 of the Identity Documents Act 2010. And that’s before you throw in the Fraud Act 2006 for good measure.
Now there may be an explanation. This could be a misunderstanding. Some documents may in fact be genuine. Or it may be that these workers, like many clients I have represented, will say that they themselves were hoodwinked by chancers in their home countries who sold them what they believed to be a genuine “right to work” package. In which case every sympathy must be extended to them. But the fault for that state of affairs is not Byron’s.
There may, of course, be an alternative narrative that has plainly escaped those who say, with a straight face, that Byron should have simply tipped off their workforce and let them loose into the night, rather than dob them in to the pigs. Putting aside that those Byron managers who did so would potentially find themselves before a Crown Court for perverting the course of justice, this bold suggestion starts with an enormous, unforgivable assumption about the history of the people concerned. Many undocumented migrants arrive on our shores as a result of human trafficking and exploitation. Where they are packed, twelve, thirteen, twenty to a bedroom in a small terraced house by their unscrupulous, violent gangster sponsors, who take each week’s wages as protection money and exploit them physically, financially and sexually every single day.
None of us has a clue whether that applies to any of those workers. But – and I sound my “unpopular defence of immigration laws” warning klaxon – that is one of the mischiefs that immigration laws, and the requiring of documentation and the right to remain and work, are designed to combat. That’s not a fig leaf – that is fact. I have defended and prosecuted enough of these tragic cases to tell you with authority that there are a good many people whose lives have been saved by immigration enforcement officials. And one or more of those could have been among the Byron workers.
But, and this is really the point – we just don’t know. Any or none of the above might apply. All we know is that Byron were informed of circumstances which caused them to believe that they, and their workforce, were at risk of having committed a criminal offence. And they cooperated with the authorities. The only alternatives, of turning a blind eye, or of sending the workers out into the world with a nod and a wink, may have satisfied the appetites of the Twitter hordes unaware of and unwilling to acquaint themselves with law or reason, but the reality is that in so doing Byron would have been passing the problem on to the next employer to be defrauded and exposed to prosecution, or, even worse, releasing vulnerable, exploited human beings back into the grasping hands of those who would do them harm. As well as, of course, exposing Byron and its lawful employees to risk of prosecution and, ultimately, imprisonment.
This is not to defend the principle of immigration controls. You want to campaign for global freedom of movement under the banner that “people aren’t illegal”? Sounds good to me. But we have rules that have been enacted by Parliament. And if you don’t like those rules, your recourse is the democratic process. Not ill-thought-out hate campaigns and playground chants of “tattle tale” against people or companies who, far from “making people illegal”, are simply obeying the law.
UPDATE: Matters have progressed since this post was first published. There have been vigilante acts of vandalism, threats and abuse directed towards Byron for their perceived complicity in enforcing inhumane immigration law, but as yet I have not heard a single sensible explanation for the rage. I would recommend the comments below (in particular Oliver’s), and summarise the position as I see it:
1. Byron employed workers who were unlawfully working. That is agreed. The Home Office’s position is that Byron were duped by false identification documents when they conducted the checks required by law when employing a person. I can tell you from professional experience that fake ID documents can nowadays be of very high quality. It is easy to get a NI number with these documents, and there is nothing unusual about tax and NI having been paid on their behalf. It happens in most cases I see. If Byron hadn’t checked properly, or if they were obviously fakes, it is to me implausible that the Home Office would not make an example of them by prosecuting.
2. All we know of the circumstances of the Home Office becoming involved is what Byron and the Home Office have said, namely that it was the HO who contacted Byron first. Legally, therefore, Byron’s options were immediately singular. From that first point, Byron was under a legal obligation to cooperate. It had to supply its workers’ documents, and, when the documents were confirmed as fake, from that point onwards a criminal investigation was in effect active. If Byron had at any point tipped off the workers as to HO suspicions, the individual doing the tipping off would be liable to prosecution for perverting the course of justice, or at best assisting an offender. Any non-cooperation with what was not only an immigration but also a criminal matter risked not only Byron’s commercial reputation, but the liberty of the managers or staff who obstructed the investigation.
3. The “above and beyond” argument. By trapping the workers in the way reported, Byron acted as an executive arm of the state. They didn’t need to. They could have told the Home Office that they were not willing to facilitate the peaceful apprehending of their workers. This is the common refrain. And yes, they could have done. But to what effect? To do so would have been to invite a raid, unpleasant and disorderly for all staff and customers, to the same ultimate effect. It’s not as if Byron could have tipped off the workers, as per 2 above. One perspective is “above and beyond”. The other is “agreeing to the most peaceful resolution of the inevitable”.
4. The only interpretation of events that justifies anger, that I can see is this: Byron deliberately hired illegal workers and shopped them in as part of a Faustian pact with the HO to avoid prosecution. This would be outrageous. But there is simply no evidence that this is the case. I would suggest that this theory appears odd on all counts – why would Byron risk prosecution by knowingly hiring unlawful workers at market rate? Why would the HO pass up the deterrent benefits of prosecuting a well-known employer for the sake of catching 35 people? – but even if plausible, there is no evidence. By all means, people can question and investigate and report their findings. But there is no safe or rational basis for concluding, as many seemingly have, that this is what has happened.
5. Anyone calling for Byron to defy an unjust law in order to take a “principled stand” against the (very real) injustices concerning immigration laws and the treatment of detainees, is calling not just for a rich company to risk a fine, but for actual people – shift managers, waiting staff – to risk prison. That is what your call amounts to. And if you feel so strongly that immigration laws call for this sort of self-sacrifice and courage, you should go do it yourself, rather than volunteer low-waged migrant proxies to take that risk for you. And it is certainly inexplicable to throw cockroaches at people when they don’t.