john davies
notes from a small curate

    The new serfs

    Holy Trinity Evening service 22/02/04 (Unemployment Sunday)

    Exodus 3.1-10, John 12.27-50

    Every kingdom has its serfs. In ancient Egypt they were the Israelites, slaves providing for the Pharaohs in a land not their own.

    Today in the retail kingdom of the UK, there are the invisible labourers who, underpaid, unprotected and overworked, provide the muscle that moves the economy. But they do much more than just grease the profits of a few retailers. Cleaning offices, building houses (then looking after both house and baby), waiting in hotels, selling sex, picking fruit, harvesting vegetables and digging for cockles, these ranks of migrants bear the burden of supporting our jobs and lifestyles.

    Through the stories of Joseph and his brothers, the abandoned baby Moses and his later calling to lead the people to freedom the bible tells us about the desperation of the Israelite slaves.

    Today, we only get to know about Britain's invisible, illegal and vulnerable migrant workers when we learn of their frequently bizarre deaths. Zhang Guo Hua drops dead, after working a 24-hour shift in a Hartlepool factory putting the name Samsung on to microwave ovens. Three young men are killed in a van crushed by the 7.03 train from Hereford to London - variously reported as Kurds, Iraqis or Arabs, they were off to pick onions in the West Midlands. Fifty people are suffocated among boxes of tomatoes in the back of a lorry. A 47-year-old Ukrainian working as a cleaner in London's Cafe Royal is found dead in a broom cupboard; he was living there to save money, because he sent all he earned to relatives. Then 19 Chinese people drown in the mudflats of Morecambe Bay on a miserable day in February.

    These are our society's slaves, often sold into bonded labour through the cost of paying their traffickers, their deaths the consequence of the way we do business in today's globalized world.

    Martin Luther King Jr once observed that "before you finish eating breakfast this morning, you've depended on more than half the world". That is far truer now than it was when he spoke it forty years ago. There are an estimated 120 million migrant workers worldwide. An increasingly female workforce doing dirty and dangerous jobs. And developing countries are losing between 10 and 30 per cent of their qualified workers to countries such as Britain, where they keep our hospitals and schools running.

    Today is designated Unemployment Sunday by Church Action on Poverty, an organisation of Christians from all denominations concerned to campaign for justice in the world of work. Unemployment is still an issue in this country but there's a growing concern about work itself - the way many workers are exploited, the problems of low pay, the way that in a supposedly civilised society people still live in a form of slavery to others.

    The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering."

    Church Action on Poverty is concerned about the suffering of today's slaves; they urge us to notice them too.

    It is easy not to see the suffering of others. The big-name retailers aren't very willing to advertise the fact that they sell us goods which come from farms and packing plants using foreign labourers, organised by gangmasters, many of whom are are illegal, providing no protection to their workers and paying them much less than the minimum wage.

    As many as 100,000 workers live this way in the UK today. In 2003, a Commons committee reported on conditions among migrant labourers. Workers were sleeping ten to a room and living in buildings with no toilet, kitchen or washing facilities. People working in packing houses producing supermarket ready-prepared food were being paid just above half the minimum wage. Unlike the pace of life in the rural, feudal Britain of long ago, a modern supermarket packing house will keep going 364 days a year, 24 hours a day. The committee accused the supermarkets of taking a "see no evil" approach, in effect encouraging illegal labour by driving prices to suppliers down to the point where legal workforces were unaffordable.

    In these situations, taking a stand for what is just and right requires faith.

    Jesus speaks of the difference between those who walk in his light and those who are too frightened to confess their faith because of what others might say: "for they loved praise from men more than praise from God."

    Thankfully, some will act on their convictions. There is growing pressure for business regulation. Jim Sheridan MP has introduced a private members' bill to establish a new licensing scheme. In the wake of the Morecambe Bay deaths, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has lent his backing to it.

    Seeing what was happening on the beaches and in the fields of Norfolk, a group of Ministers from the King's Lynn Methodist Circuit issued a statement last November which told the story of people seeking a better future, betrayed and exploited by gangmasters encouraged by supermarkets who ask no questions. They said, "this is a scandal of huge proportion, causing misery and virtual enslavement to thousands of people."

    And Jesus said, "I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness."

    Despite muted sympathy for migrant labourers, they are still somehow seen as a burden, when the truth is the opposite. Home Office research shows that in a single year, migrants, including asylum-seekers and refugees, contributed 2.5bn more to the economy than they cost in taking up services. In the US, research has estimated that first-generation migrants cost the country $3,000, but the second generation give back many times more to the national coffers - $80,000 over a lifetime. The right-wing US think-tank the Cato Institute calls migrant workers "the lubricant to our economy".

    Here, migration is one of the few social forces that keep small businesses alive in local areas. As in the countryside, so in the towns and inner cities: immigrant labour is prepared to work in parts that others have given up on. By so doing, they often drive up local wages and employment.

    Statistics show that Asian people are twice as likely as white people to start-up their own businesses; Caribbean people three times as likely; and Africans nearly five times as likely. The reason is not just the discrimination that keeps migrants out of regular jobs, but having the drive and ambition that it takes to establish a life abroad in the first place. All this is good for them, and good for the country. All this is a modern-day way out of slavery.

    Moses stood by his people although he was in fear and trembling about what leading them out of slavery might mean. Jesus stood before his disciples and urged them to put their fears aside and walk in his light. Jesus said,

    "I know that the Father's command leads to eternal life."

    In Morecambe and London, King's Lynn and Liverpool, there are many people longing to get out of Egypt. On Unemployment Sunday let us pray and perhaps offer ourselves in some way, that the light in which we walk and the eternal life we reach towards, will be seen and shared by them.


    Lord God, you said, "I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering."

    We pray for those caught up in slavery today, and ask you to hear their cries and come to them in their suffering.

    To those enslaved by people who will exploit them for profit, trapped in poverty a long way from home,
    Jesus, Light of the world: Send your light

    To those enslaved by greed, who will stop at nothing to increase their wealth,
    Jesus, Light of the world: Send your light

    To those enslaved by fear, unable to stand for what they know is right because they worry about what others will say,
    Jesus, Light of the world: Send your light

    To those who enslave others, who use their power or physical strength to manipulate or constrain,
    Jesus, Light of the world: Send your light

    To us, with all that enslaves us, our worries, inhibitions and frailties,
    Jesus, Light of the world: Send your light

    You said, "I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness."

    So we entrust ourselves and all we have prayed for into your hopeful care.
    Merciful Father...


    Sermon based on Andrew Simms: The New Serfs in New Statesman 15/2/04.

    Also includes some material from the Church Action on Poverty website.

    As a possible response to the migrant worker situation please see letter to local supermarket managers, on page 11 of CAP Unemployment Sunday worship resource booklet [download]