In China Town

Harry Stopes

Since the summer, members of the London Chinatown Chinese Association say, the UK Border Agency has been targeting businesses in Chinatown, looking for people who may be living or working in Britain illegally. Most of the raids, according to the LCCA, have been speculative ‘fishing’ trips, based on no intelligence and designed to intimidate. Almost every business in Chinatown has been hit. At one restaurant the officers showed the manager their warrant only after the raid was finished – they were at the wrong address.

On Tuesday afternoon, most businesses in Chinatown shut down in protest, their owners and employees marching through the streets of Soho. The demonstration was organised by the LCCA and Min Quan, a project of the anti-racist Monitoring Group.

Bo, who has been here for 41 years, said he has never been treated with such hostility by the British state, or seen the Chinese community so angry. During one recent raid – they happen more than once a week now, he said – his mobile phone rang. He answered it, thinking it could be about his mother, who is in a nursing home. ‘Don't answer your phone!’ UKBA officers shouted. ‘They treat you really really bad,’ he said. ‘Even the police don't treat me like that. They're so aggressive, like storm troopers.’

The protest, arranged at short notice, was initially described as a ‘strike’. This is misleading: the LCCA is primarily a group of local business owners, supported by corporations including the Bank of China, as well as the Mayor of London's office. Their publicity material focuses on the damage done by the UKBA to ‘legitimate businesses’.

The LCCA secretary general was at pains to point out that the organisation in principle supports raids carried out ‘in the right way’. Other protesters complained about a ‘labour shortage’ in Chinatown. Chefs are on the UKBA's shortage occupation list, which means that businesses can sponsor them to get a visa – but they must earn at least £29,570, and the process can be difficult and expensive to negotiate, especially for smaller businesses. For lower level jobs like kitchen hands or waiters, sponsoring an overseas worker to come to the UK is ‘virtually impossible’, according to Jan Brulc of the Migrants’ Rights Network.

Whether workers were paid for the two lost hours on Tuesday afternoon was up to individual employers; one kitchen worker that I spoke to told me he wasn't. It seems that Tuesday’s protest was mainly about protecting the interests of businesses, and had little to do with supporting the rights of poor migrants to work legally in this country and be treated with respect – a prospect worsened by the new Immigration Bill, which Labour abstained from voting on earlier on Tuesday morning.

For Stafford Scott from Tottenham Rights (another Monitoring Group project), the UKBA raids are consonant with his experience of hostility and racism from the police. The government is ‘going across the world to beg for money from China, selling off half of England to the Chinese, when they don't even like them,’ he told me. Later, he said to the crowd that Chinese people in Britain should tell the government in China to stop investing, and pack up their own businesses too: ‘Close down your shops! Let them eat fish and chips!’