But many that are first will be last, and the last first. — Matthew 19.30
If we try not to spiritualise what Jesus says in his parable of the workers in the vineyard too much, it is literally about giving a fair minimum wage and equality in the labour market. Although literal exegesis is often given a bad press, it’s useful to state sometimes what the Bible actually says before jumping into interpretative dance with it. This parable is one of many in which Jesus demonstrates his Upside-Down Kingdom, his anti-establishment manifesto. It’s the kind of thing that we in the church try to sermonise out of existence.
This all comes to mind when I think about the raw issues surrounding immigration in Britain, the whipped hysteria served up by the Daily Hate, pandered to by Tories and the Labour Right before even thinking about the absurdist criminals that call themselves BNP. I find it odd how, seeing as migration has been part of human nature since we learnt the trick of walking upright, draconian administration of border controls is a recent phenomenon and has been spun as something right-thinking and normal.
One incident happened recently that showed me what this is all about. On Friday 12 June 2009, members of the cleaning staff at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) were invited to an emergency meeting with their employers, ISS, a subcontractor to SOAS, over pay and conditions. The meeting was raided by immigration officers supported by police in riot gear. It must have been terrifying for the cleaners, many of whom were ‘illegal immigrants’ (almost ‘illegal humans’). Many of them had lived and worked in London for a number of years, and subsisted on meagre wages. They were deported.
Employers like ‘illegals’ because they can do what they want them, pay them what they want and get rid of them however they want. Employers also like strict immigration laws that focus on the migrants rather than them, as it creates an atmosphere of fear, making the employer control all the more easy. True, there is legal provision for fining employers who employ illegal immigrants, but that’s rarely used and it’s well worth the economic risk. In this situation, the employers turned over their ‘illegals’ and so aided ‘justice’. What employers do not like is when these workers, who are absolutely necessary for the functioning of our economy, start making demands about pay and conditions: a living wage and safe, healthy and reasonable working conditions. Neoliberal economies search out these uncontrolled labour markets. Neoliberal politicians want strict immigration controls not because there is no more room left (British emigrants outnumber British immigrants), but to create a market for slave labour.
I’m surprised that the church responds very well to this challenge. It is Anglo-Saxon in the best sense: providing asylum in our churches and communities. We have Refugee Week and a fair consensus against the current state of immigration policy. Maybe it’s the weight of parables, Exodus and wandering Aramaeans that gives us the sense to welcome and protect the stranger. I hope so, but there’s far more we can be doing to expose the injustices of our cruel and deceptive immigration system.