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The campaign to boycott Byron is a case of misplaced anger – there are better targets for ire over workers' rights

Whether immigration is a good thing for the economy, or whether it is justified on social or cultural grounds, is not a question for a burger bar

Thursday 28 July 2016 17:34 BST
Byron restaurant in Islington, north London. Dozens of workers at the burger chain have been arrested in a swoop by immigration officials
Byron restaurant in Islington, north London. Dozens of workers at the burger chain have been arrested in a swoop by immigration officials (PA)

The management of the expensive burger chain Byron had a difficult customer the other day: Her Majesty’s Government. Faced with a demand for the company to facilitate the detention of 35 illegal workers from Albania, Brazil, Nepal and Egypt, they had a choice – comply, or tell the authorities to get lost and face the consequences. In which case the illegal workers would probably still have been arrested.

And so the company complied, apparently employing some degree of subterfuge in doing so. The unlucky staff were reportedly asked to attend health and safety training sessions; the allegation is that these had been set up deliberately as a sort of trap. The Home Office denies that claim, and there is also no suggestion that the burger chain had failed in its initial staff immigration checks. But some 35 individuals have been duly arrested; some reports suggest a further 150 are on the run.

Their fate, either way, is no laughing matter. They will be deported, in all likelihood. They were all, presumably, doing a perfectly good job of flipping these fancy burgers and, in their own small way, demonstrating the economic benefits of immigration.

Here were younger, hard-working people not on benefits, paying their taxes and helping to support the many older Britons on pensions. In losing them, the demographic profile of the UK, probably the most important determinant in achieving an affordable welfare system, has worsened a little bit. Finding replacements may not be easy, and Byron’s clientele may have to pay more for their fries.

More than that, many feel outraged by the supposedly sneaky nature of their capture, and Byron’s cooperation with the authorities. Perhaps this is to do with the contrast between Byron’s customers – the well-heeled in London, such as George Osborne, who once tweeted an image of himself enjoying a pre-Budget Byron snack – and the staff, who earn rather less than cabinet ministers and the like. It is a reminder that the consequences of immigration touch us all, however remote these arrests may feel to some.

And yet it is difficult to see what alternatives were available to the Byron management. If they chose to defy the authorities, they themselves would be prosecuted and fined, and the Albanians, Egyptians, Brazilians and Nepalese working for them kicked out anyway.

Whether immigration is a good thing for the economy or not, or whether it is justified on some wider social or cultural grounds, is not a question for a burger bar. It would not appear that any of these individuals are asylum seekers, and if they are then they are free to claim asylum now. The laws on immigration may be strict, even draconian, but they do not in themselves amount to an abuse of human rights. It is said that some used fraudulent personal and right to work documentation to get their jobs.

So the “Ban Byron” movement could probably find better targets for its anger – shops that dodge the minimum wage, restaurants that exploit staff by retaining their tips; or clothing retailers that pay disgracefully low wages to workers in poor countries. It could also campaign for a change in the law to make Brexit operate more rationally, so that economic migrants from, say, Slovakia or Romania are not automatically treated more favourably than those from Albania or Egypt simply because those countries happen to be in the EU. Something for all of us to chew on.

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