This, to be blunt, is a story about a defeat. About skilled workers, providing an essential service to some of the most marginalised and disenfranchised people in the country, trying - and failing - to organise for better pay and conditions. This took place during a cost of living crisis, in which workers’ pay failed, miserably, to keep pace with spiralling food and energy prices. Ending up, month after month, without enough money to last them until payday. But, I hope, it will become a story about a victory.

Organising as charity workers

I worked, until very recently, as an immigration law practitioner for the Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team (ASIRT), a small advocacy charity in Birmingham. The people I provided legal representation for were not eligible for legal aid. Successive cuts and austerity measures have created severe barriers to justice for those without the means to pay for it. This means leaving voluntary sector organisations to try to fill the gaps in spaces left vacant by the state. Most of my work was with families - usually headed by single mothers - who had been rendered literally destitute by ‘hostile environment’ immigration measures.

We promoted access to justice, providing free, professionally regulated immigration advice, submitting applications for leave to remain, assisting with the submissions of applications to have prohibitively high Home Office application fees waived, and pursued British Citizenship applications for undocumented children and young people eligible for such citizenship on the basis of their long residence in the UK. We would also advocate on behalf of destitute children and families owed a duty of care by local authorities under the provision of section 17 of the Children Act, and commence litigation proceedings in the - frequent - event that such provision was unlawfully withheld or denied. The work that we did, I have repeatedly been assured, transformed lives.

My colleagues and I, then, were the ‘lefty lawyers’ characterised by the likes of Suella Braverman as abusing, for our own personal gain, an immigration system rendered dysfunctional by successive generations of politicians. But if our primary motivation was personal gain, we were failing miserably. Having weathered several funding crises and a pandemic, ASIRT’s workers, like so many across the country, had experienced a real terms pay-cut. All while trying to manage and mitigate the trauma of our service users’ daily struggles with a ‘hostile environment’1 expressly designed to immiserate and inflict violence on them. Simultaneously, we were serving as culture war punch bags for the likes of Lee Anderson and Julia Hartley-Brewer. While the team was tight-knit with members deeply committed to their work, one valued member of the team resigned in February 2022, explicitly citing poor pay within the organisation as a motivating factor.

As ASIRT was a charity, its workers’ relationships with their bosses had a distinct flavour: rather than having their labour directly exploited by capitalists seeking to extract profit, we were accountable to a board of trustees. They are volunteers with the avowed aim of working to promote the charity’s best interests. The trustees had, in turn, recruited and appointed a Director of Operations - a professional manager, working to oversee and facilitate the organisation’s everyday business. Several of ASIRT’s staff had been trade union members for some time. They were paying dues to the United Voices of the World (UVW), and affiliated to that union’s Legal Sector Workers United section. While trustees and the Director alike verbally identified themselves as being in favour of workers’ rights to belong to trade unions, no formal recognition agreement was in place.

A funding award

In March 2022, we received an email from the Director of Operations, notifying us that a funding bid, on which team members had worked alongside her, had been successful. The organisation had been awarded a grant of £120,000, payable in tranches of £60k per annum over three years. Notably, this funding was to be made available on an ‘unrestricted funding’ basis, meaning that the money was tied to no specific project or activity. It could be spent as the charity saw fit, providing that the purpose met the organisation’s specified aims and objectives.

Workers were informed that the award of this grant funding guaranteed that the organisation could maintain its extant staffing levels for at least another 12 months. This would be irrespective of the success or failure of any other project-specific funding bids, and secured at least one practitioner’s work for the full 36 months of the award’s duration. A team meeting was held in the wake of the Director’s email, during the course of which workers raised the prospect of an inflation-linked pay rise, noting the financial stability which the grant of unrestricted funds had secured for the organisation.

Immediately, and very strikingly, the atmosphere in the office changed from celebratory to recriminatory, with the Director advising the team that any demand on our part for a salary increase would impact adversely on the working conditions of the organisation’s lowest paid worker. At that time, ASIRT’s administrator was contracted to work 4 days each week, but had recently been offered an extra day, bringing him up to a full time position. Any request for a payrise, we were instructed, would jeopardise the prospect of this increase to his working week, with the clear implication that any improvement to our working conditions would be at the cost of a deterioration to his.

This felt manipulative. The worker in question was not present at the team meeting, being on paternity leave following the birth of his first child. Moreover, he was himself a precarious migrant, having been granted time-limited leave to remain in the UK, which precluded his access to public funds, such as Child Benefit or Universal Credit. He undoubtedly experienced the worst material conditions of anyone within the team, and he therefore had the greatest stake in any prospective wage increase. The demand from ASIRT’s workers for increased pay, in line with increased living costs, came from an explicit position of solidarity: we were all feeling the pressures of inflation, increased food costs, and spiralling housing costs, and we were all in need of better remuneration for our work to meet those costs. Yet, in a taste of what was to come in the months ahead, the first response from the organisation’s management structure was to choose violence.

Union recognition

Undeterred, we set to organising. Those workers - including the admin worker used as leverage against a pay increase by the Director - who had not previously been trade union members were successfully recruited to UVW, resulting in 100% membership density within the organisation. A union meeting was convened in late March, from which it was agreed that workers would write to the Board of Trustees, setting out demands for an across the board 10% pay increase, with no loss of hours for any team member, and guaranteed full-time employment for the precarious admin worker. In mid-May, the charity’s Chair wrote to advise workers that our request had been denied, and that there would be no further review of workers’ salaries until October 2022, 5 months later. By this point, the Retail Price Index measured UK inflation rates at 11.1% - somewhat higher than the 10% demanded by ASIRT’s workers. Tellingly, there was no attempt by the chair to negotiate with us, or to meet our demands halfway. Our concerns were simply dismissed outright.

Accordingly, we instructed our union officer at UVW to write to the Director of Operations, requesting the organisation’s official recognition of UVW as the workers’ chosen trade union, and observing that there was a risk of an official dispute being called if the trustees persisted in pursuing their direction of travel. One Trustee, himself a lifelong trade unionist, was tasked by the Board to speak to each individual worker to check that they endorsed the call for the official recognition of UVW. Again, the affirmation was 100%.

Subsequently, the Chair wrote to each individual worker to advise them that the request for trade union recognition had been refused, with added threats of unlawful disciplinary action to the point of dismissal against any worker engaging in any form of industrial action. At this point, the Trustee who had been tasked with checking on workers’ attitudes to UVW’s recognition request resigned from the Board, on the basis that he could not remain associated with an organisation which had demonstrated such hostility to trade union activity. From here, the situation within the organisation further deteriorated, with the Director resigning on the basis that she could not cope with the conflict situation. She spent the majority of her notice period working from home, and in fact left the organisation without notifying the workers: one day she was simply gone, having declined to attend her own leaving party.

Throughout this period, ASIRT’s workers continued to self-organise, and to offer support to each other and to our service users. The Chair visited the office, along with two other trustees, informing us that a replacement Director was to be recruited, and reiterating the position that no inflation-linked pay rise could be considered, since all of the year’s available budget - including the first tranche of the unrestricted grant of £120,000 - had already been allocated ‘elsewhere’. They reiterated the position that the organisation remained unprepared to grant the workers’ demand for trade union recognition, with one trustee offering the observation that such recognition would ‘throw a spanner in the works’. Staff subsequently balloted, successfully, for industrial action.

While no clarification of the funds’ ‘allocation’ was offered, despite requests, one explanation quickly became apparent: the advert for the replacement Director’s role offered the position on a full-time basis, the outgoing Director having worked a three day week, at a substantially hiked rate of pay. Indeed, factoring in the increased hours, pay for the Director’s position had been raised by more than 90%. When concerns about this were raised, the Chair explained that the rate offered reflected ‘the calibre’ of candidate considered appropriate to fill the position- with the corollary that the calibre of workers already employed within the organisation was held in significantly lower regard.

The advert was promoted by the Trustees with an entreaty for workers to share it with our professional networks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we didn’t. No candidate was appointed. This is where things really start to go wrong.

Mismanagement and crisis

On the Director’s departure, and following the failure to recruit a replacement, workers had requested a conversation with Trustees to discuss the role’s responsibilities and functions, and to organise ways in which these responsibilities and functions could be shared by existing members of the team. This overture was rejected although, in the absence of a Director, I, as the Senior Caseworker, was asked to take on responsibility for the general oversight of the office, already having responsibility for casework supervision and training and development for the rest of the legal team. I was offered no remuneration for these additional duties but was expected to meet with the Chair on a weekly basis.

As part of my responsibility to ensure quality standards, I would hold one-to-one supervision sessions with the caseworkers on a six-weekly basis, offering the opportunity to identify and discuss issues of casework concern, and to identify training and development needs. One such meeting was held with a colleague whose project brief was specifically to address the needs of EU migrants post-Brexit, ensuring that applications were submitted on their behalf to the Home Office’s EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), thus preventing them from becoming undocumented. The timeframe for submission of such applications - the biggest population registration scheme in British history - had overlapped with the Covid pandemic lockdown period, creating distinct problems around the procurement of identifying documentation. Nevertheless, the project had been run with considerable success, with working pathways put in place to ensure the timely submission of applications for members of particularly vulnerable groups, such as children in local authority care.

The EUSS worker’s project was funded by the Home Office, via the local authority, on a precarious 6 monthly basis. The previous award, granted in April, was therefore due to expire in October, although an extension was anticipated. In any case, we had of course all been advised in March that the successful grant of unrestricted funds ensured that extant staffing levels could be maintained for at least 12 months, regardless. Prior to the Director’s departure, discussions had been held in relation to the EUSS worker’s future, with a view to providing training and development opportunities to allow him to become involved with non-EU immigration work. During the course of our supervision meeting, a training programme was identified and agreed, and the worker booked onto a week-long immigration law training course.

Two days after this meeting in early October, he approached me in some distress, having received an email from a Trustee notifying him that his post was at risk of redundancy. Despite having responsibility for his supervision, I knew nothing about this. Our mutual understanding then was that the organisation was still awaiting notification from the city council of the Home Office’s decision on whether to extend funding for the post for another 6 months- at the end of which period, his employment contract would in any case become due for renewal. At his request, I contacted the funding officer at the city council, to be advised that a funding renewal had in fact been offered a week previously- albeit at a reduced rate - and that this offer had been refused outright, within the hour, by the Chair of Trustees. No consultation had been held about this either with the worker himself, or with myself as his supervisor - even though I had, in fact, had attended a routine ‘catch-up’ meeting with the Chair just three days previously.

It appeared clear to both of us that the decisions to refuse funding and to initiate immediate redundancy proceedings were directly linked to hostility to trade union organising within the workplace, the EUSS worker having been identified by the former Director and the Chair as an active UVW member- and, in fact, having been identified as responsible for encouraging previously non-unionised workers to join. I contacted the Chair to raise my concerns about the development and the absence of communication, and to note that the worker had in fact just been registered on a training course as part of an already agreed programme of development. Her response was to advise me that I should not, in fact, be offering developmental supervision- a claim she subsequently withdrew, since it was demonstrably untrue. Nevertheless, redundancy proceedings were to continue.

The Chair subsequently advised that the Board had decided to appoint an interim manager, and this commissioned consultant was subsequently introduced to the team, in person, by the Chair - who commenced the proceedings with the announcement that the organisation was ‘in crisis’. I directly queried this, on the basis that staff had been advised by the then Director that financial stability had been ensured until at least the following March. The response was that the position had changed in the interim, essentially because the Director’s departure had required Trustees to commission the services of consultants. When I sought clarification of how much of the organisation’s resources had been spent on those services to date, the Chair simply replied that I was ‘not on Dragon’s Den’.

Following his arrival, the management consultant took to arranging one to one meetings with each of the team’s workers, confiding that he was confused by the emphasis on crisis management communicated to him by the Trustees, since the organisation’s finances were in reasonable shape and the workers remained committed to their duties. He advised the EUSS worker that he was pausing redundancy proceedings, since he was unconvinced of the legality of the trustees’ actions to date, and- notably- he took to contacting the union officer at UVW.

On his second day at work, he attended a meeting, alongside the Chair, at the office of the National Lottery, to discuss a pending funding application on which, for obvious reasons, he had no involvement. Neither of the workers who had actually had prior input, and so could speak to the bid from an informed perspective, were invited. Nevertheless, the consultant reported back to staff that the meeting had been successful, with the organisation invited to proceed to apply for a substantial grant of £400k, to be allocated over 4 years.

On his fourth day in the role, I found him close to tears in the office car-park, where he reported that he had just come off the phone to the Chair, who had fired him with immediate effect ‘because I won’t sack [the EUSS caseworker].’ He had been forbidden to enter the office, and handed me his mobile phone, asking me not to disclose that our conversation had taken place.

Nothing was heard from the Trustees until just before close of the working day, when an email was sent to the workers from the Chair, announcing the consultant’s departure, and advising that ‘we are making new arrangements and I will update you very soon’. A bit of digging around by workers subsequently established that this man was paid £2.5k, plus travel, parking and subsistence expenses, for his three days’ work. That was pretty much exactly the gross monthly pay of the organisation’s most highly paid employee. Had he been employed for the full 40 days of his contract, the consultant would have received remuneration in excess of £33k- all of this in the context of the Trustees’ refusal to consider an inflation-linked pay rise for the team.

The closure of ASIRT

On the following Monday, November 7th 2022, we arrived at work to find an email from the Chair, advising us that the Board had ‘decided to close ASIRT for good’. No detailed explanation was given for the decision, save for the claim that the failure to recruit a replacement Director rendered the organisation unsustainable. The decision had, of course, been made entirely without any input from workers within the team, some of whom had been with the organisation for a considerable period of time, as well as without any service user perspective. The email further advised staff that the closure process would be managed by yet another consultant, styling herself ‘the Female Alchemist’ - I wish I was joking - who would be making contact with staff members to discuss their circumstances and options. Communication between the organisation’s staff and its Trustees effectively ceased from that point, since the Board simply refused to respond to or acknowledge any further communication from the workers, including a letter, signed by all team members, identifying the crisis of governance within the organisation, expressing no confidence in the ability of the existing Board to act in the organisation’s best interests, and calling for the immediate resignation of the Chair. Staff were advised to anticipate the organisation’s closure in Spring 2023.

Two days later, all workers received a letter from the Alchemist. In this correspondence, she reiterated the position that ‘the charity has dwindling reserves, and importantly has not been able to recruit a senior manager/CEO with the skills to apply for funds and ensure the ongoing sustainability of the organisation.’ If reserves were, in fact ‘dwindling’, this was in large part a consequence of the Trustees’ unilateral decision to refuse offers of funding, and to spend undisclosed sums of money on consultancy fees - including, of course, the Alchemist’s- and there were workers within the existing team with demonstrable fundraising skills which they were keen to see utilised - albeit, with a growing concern that we should have some input into decisions around the expenditure of any such funds raised.

While this commissioned consultant was keen to present her role as the provision of ‘stewardship and support through this difficult time with the aim of protecting the beneficiaries through a planned handover to other providers,’ her own anti-trade union animus was evident, with the suggestion that ‘the recent press release on the UVW website2 demonstrates a lack of understanding of the issues and sadly, places the charity, staff and beneficiaries in a more precarious position.’ It was unclear how workers could have demonstrated more ‘understanding’, given that they had been excluded from the discussions affecting their jobs. The letter went on to extol a ‘planned closure’ of the organisation. What actually transpired was chaos.

The Alchemist’s approach, in true ‘divide and rule’ fashion, was to attempt to arrange individual meetings with members of staff, an approach universally rejected by workers, who wished to meet with her as a team. She pushed back against this request, essentially suggesting that quieter members of staff would be silenced by more assertive ones, but was eventually forced to concede to our show of unity.

She did, however, have another trick up her sleeve, in the form of a letter, sent on behalf of the organisation but without the knowledge or consent of the workers, notifying partner agencies of the proposed closure of the organisation. We became aware of this letter only when notified by colleagues in other organisations, expressing bewildered incredulity at the infantilising and patronising tone of its content, which featured a tortured metaphor about a school bus. Rapidly, workers were losing control of their livelihoods as a consequence of steamrollering tactics by the Trustees and their hired consultants.

The staff meeting with the Alchemist duly occurred. During the course of this she confirmed, amongst other things, that the pending £400k funding bid with the National Lottery had been withdrawn by the Trustees, an act of sabotage which essentially guaranteed the organisation’s demise, the loss of livelihoods and the decimation of services. Again, there had been no discussion with the organisation’s workers- whose labour had actually informed the bid - about this action, and the obvious contradiction was that the Trustees were cancelling pending bids while decrying the absence of a CEO with the requisite skills to pursue them. We outlined our aspiration to take control of the organisation with a transformed and more democratic Board of Trustees. These aspirations were disregarded in the drive to closure.

Shortly before the meeting, we had received another letter, which amongst other things, reasserted the essential hostility to trade union activity which had informed the Trustees’ response to date, noting: ‘My recommendation to the board was not to proceed with union recognition. This is not because I see no value in unions. I regularly negotiate with unions, I always reach out to them and seek dialogue and I see the value in individual staff members receiving support from union reps whichever union it is,’ before going on to traduce the competence of the workers’ chosen union. The irony of workers in an organisation which existed to advocate on their clients’ behalf themselves being denied the right of access to representation appeared lost on her.

Significantly, she added her reflection that ‘collective bargaining only works when unions can engage with those who have the power to make the kind of changes that the union demands. Because the majority of staff are funded from different pots of restricted funding with each funder having their own criteria collective bargaining would be impossible.’

She went on to add: ‘When the staff of ASIRT were seeking a cost of living pay increase, the trustees approached funders to ask whether they would be in agreement with these increases and whether they would fund them. The response was that the funders would not tolerate those increases.’

Whether the claim about funders’ responses was actually true is open to question: certainly no evidence of any such response was ever presented to us, and no funders ever indicated any such response in subsequent discussions we held with them about the possibility of wresting funds from the control of the Trustees, given the sabotage represented by the incidents of cancelling and refusing funds.

What is perhaps most significant here, however, is the sheer disingenuousness of the claim: a charity’s funders are not responsible for the salary levels of the organisation’s workers, its trustees and management are. And while it was true that distinct workers and projects were funded from different restricted funding allowances, the fact remained that we had articulated a demand for the costs of an inflation-linked pay rise to be met from an award of unrestricted funding - a sum of money that the Trustees appeared more than happy to use to cover the putative 90%-plus pay increase offered to the replacement Director of Operations. More, as anyone who has ever worked in the charity sector could testify, it is entirely routine for given workers and projects to be funded from distinct funding sources: this has little bearing on the wages offered to workers by employers, or on annual pay rises as and when they occur, which are routinely linked to National Joint Council (NJC) payscales, rather than arbitrarily determined. Indeed, the Alchemist’s claim to the contrary is essentially a full-blown argument against collective bargaining, and so the inherent value of trade union membership, within the entire sector.

Elsewhere, she suggested that the protection of any of the organisation’s services was contingent on ‘stakeholders’’ reactions to the impact of ‘the industrial action’, about which they had expressed ‘concerns’: while workers were officially in dispute with the trustees at this stage, no industrial action of any type had actually taken place, save for an expression of concern about the trustees’ unilateral and hostile action on the union’s website, and a request for dialogue and transparency. Moreover, the reaction workers had received to date from stakeholders within partner organisations was characterised by solidarity and incredulity at the bullying behaviour of the Trustees. Essentially, we were being warned to play nicely or face the consequences.

‘Garden Leave’, violence and abuses of process

Not, however, that the Trustees themselves or their consultants appeared motivated by any concern to play nicely. Redundancy proceedings for the EUSS worker, who had submitted a grievance alleging discrimination on the basis of trade union activity, were again underway – all other workers having also been in receipt of ‘at risk of redundancy’ notices- and, on December 11th 2022 (a Sunday), he received a letter from the Alchemist, sent to his personal email address and dated Friday December 9th, confirming that he was to be made redundant as of February 4th 2023.

Shockingly, the letter instructed that:

‘Since the funding for your role has ended we do not require you to work during the notice period, and you will therefore be placed on Garden Leave from 12th December 2022.’

Further, in a flagrant attempt to prevent him from demonstrating solidarity with his colleagues, the letter stated:

‘During this period, you are not permitted to engage in employment with any other organisation, and you should refrain from contacting or attempting to contact any clients or staff members.’

He had been locked out of the organisation’s IT systems, with immediate effect.

All of this was predicated on the claim that the organisation had been ‘unable to find suitable alternative work’ for the EUSS worker, and that ‘Birmingham City Council has not provided any further funding to the Home Office for your role (sic.). Both of these claims were untrue and disingenuous. There was no need to identify ‘suitable alternative work’, since the worker had an ongoing active caseload of clients who would continue to need his advocacy and support. And, while the Alchemist appeared uninformed about the provenance of funding for the post she was declaring redundant, given that the source of any such funding was the Home Office, disbursed by Birmingham City Council, rather than vice versa, the fact remained that the possibility of funding had been offered, and unilaterally refused by the Chair.

It was, in other words, little short of impossible to regard the Trustees’ actions, and their haste to get rid of the EUSS worker, as anything other than punishment for his involvement in trade union activism within the organisation, and yet another act of wilful sabotage. In any case, it was certainly not predicated on any regard for the worker’s clients, who were instantly disenfranchised from legal representation, or for his colleagues, whose workload accordingly multiplied in his absence. Absurdly, an organisation professing the need for closure on the basis of ‘dwindling reserves’ was intent on paying a worker to do nothing for 2 months, purely out of spite.

Significantly, for a legal support charity, the Trustees’ actions also appeared to be in breach of employment law. Caselaw holds that an employer cannot impose a condition of garden leave against an employee, unless the contract of employment contains a clause specifically mandating such action. No such clause existed.

As supervisor, I wrote a letter of concern to the Chair, noting the impact of his effective summary dismissal on his clients, on his colleagues’ workload, and potentially on his mental health, given the stipulation that he should have no contact with his colleagues. In response, she suggested that I ‘make a list’ of his pending cases. The concerns both about his health and wellbeing and about the team’s capacity to provide a quality service in his absence were disregarded entirely.

In the meantime, staff continued to seek to protect jobs and services. Meetings were convened with funding trusts, during which the trustees’ refusal to be held to account for their actions was discussed, in an attempt to assert democratic control of the organisation’s finances. While sympathetic, the message from funders was unequivocal: legally, the funding agreement sat between the funder and the board of trustees. There was simply no mechanism in place for the organisation’s workforce to intercept that arrangement, irrespective of the legitimacy or otherwise of any concerns they might have.

Similarly, I approached the Charity Commission under ‘Whistleblowing’ provision, noting concerns about the trustees’ apparent misuse of finances, their lack of transparency, and their failure to follow the organisation’s own policies and procedures when making the decision to close. Again, the response was disappointing, with the Commission observing that, while the Trustees’ use of the organisation’s resources appeared ‘unwise’, there was no evidence that any funds had been misappropriated for the trustees’ personal gain and, therefore, no breach of charity law. In other words, then, disgruntled charitable trustees can simply decide to take their ball home, hand back project funding, and walk away from the organisation for which they hold stewardship, decimating jobs and services in the process, without being held to account in any regard. A stronger disincentive to trade union organising within the sector would be difficult to imagine.

Notwithstanding the Alchemist’s stated commitment to offer ‘stewardship’ and to protect jobs and services, transferring them where possible to other ‘stakeholder’ organisations, the end result was that four of the organisation’s then six workers were made redundant - one opting to leave voluntarily before the end of her redundancy notice period - while attempts were made to TUPE two - one of whom resigned, having had no involvement in the transfer negotiation process and then finding herself expected to carry out a 4 hour daily commute, despite having articulated caring responsibilities. Again, the needs and welfare of workers, and their rights to have their voices heard, were disregarded in their entirety. ‘Alchemy’, this was not.

Amidst all this chaos, four of ASIRT’s workers took strike action, closing down operations just before Christmas. By then, it’s fair to say that we all fully understood the situation to be out of our control, yet we remained committed to shining a spotlight on the injustice we had experienced, on the unjust and undemocratic working practices embedded in the charity sector, and on the implications of closure for the people reliant on our labour. We received considerable support on the day from our service users, as well as from fellow trade unionists in Birmingham, many of whom turned up to support us on the picket line.

Indeed, it’s important to note that workers’ strike pay costs were met by Birmingham Trades Council - for whose solidarity we are hugely grateful - rather than by our trade union, UVW. That’s because, with quite exquisite bad timing, the union itself had fallen into financial crisis, issuing redundancy notices to its own workers.3 The clear message from our union officer, then, was that we could not rely on UVW’s finances to protect us from the loss of wages incurred by strike action. Equally, it’s important to note how the union’s own precariousness throughout the process in many ways served to hamstring our capacity for action and, as our officer candidly admitted to us, he simply was not prepared for the slash and burn tactics adopted by the trustees once the closure decision was communicated, and had little capacity to respond to that ferocity in kind.

And nowhere was this ruthlessness better communicated than towards the end of the story. In early January, along with 2 colleagues, I received a letter officially confirming that I was to be made redundant as of March 31st. From there, it became apparent that there was little to be done other than to tie up whatever loose ends we realistically could for the hundreds of precarious clients still on our books, in the full knowledge that there was a scarcity of accessible legal representation available to them once we had gone. Closure letters were drawn up, and we began to contact clients, confirming the situation, managing their distress, and identifying what we could helpfully do for them in the interim. From mid-February afterwards, people began to call at the office to collect their files and documents, in preparation for the organisation’s closure.

On the afternoon of Friday, March 3rd, we received a directive from one of the Board, to the effect that the closure letter we had drafted and sent out to clients, shared with Trustees some weeks previously, had been identified as not compliant with regulatory requirements. There was no explanation why. We were instructed to refrain from sending any further letters - though, in fact they had, by this point, all been dispatched. We were advised to expect further direction from the Trustees: requests for urgent clarification were disregarded.

The following Monday, March 6th, a timed email was received from the Chair of Trustees at 9.30 am, advising us of the appointment of yet another consultant, who, we were told, had been commissioned to manage the office during the closure period. On arrival at the office, this individual then proceeded to hand myself and a colleague letters from the Board, advising us that we, too, were to be placed on ‘Garden Leave’ with immediate effect until the end of our notice periods. The terms of the leave, as with the EUSS worker’s previously, were effectively ‘solitary confinement’: we were prohibited from attending the office, or from contacting clients, partners, or colleagues. Since, again, neither of us had such clauses in our employment contracts, I sought clarity on the legality of the action, which the consultant was unable to answer - nevertheless insisting that I needed to leave the office. I sought advice from my union officer, who was not available, before advising the consultant that I would be remaining on site until I was satisfied with the legality of the Trustees’ actions.

At this, he simply blocked my path, effectively preventing me from leaving my desk to attend a pre-arranged appointment with a client without physically pushing him out my way - an option which was extremely inviting, given the volatile and emotionally charged atmosphere at that point. Since it was difficult to read his behaviour as anything other than designed to provoke a physical confrontation, it became apparent that I actually had little option other than simply to leave the building - a decision which I hugely regret.

I continued to seek clarification from the Trustees about both the rationale and the legality of placing me on ‘Garden Leave’, to no avail, until a response to a subject access request I submitted disclosed that my presence, along with that of the other worker placed on simultaneous leave, had been identified as ‘a significant risk’ to the organisation and, perhaps even more insultingly, a source of ‘confusion and distress’ to the clients, with many of whom we had had supportive working relationships for years, and to whom we were now unable even to say our goodbyes. The disclosure explicitly stated that the option of placing us on ‘Garden Leave’ had been taken in preference to subjecting us to any disciplinary procedure- presumably because there was no evidence which might justify such disciplinary action- and that it was considered ‘important’ that we were given no explanation for the decision taken. Notably, the other 2 remaining members of staff - both of whom had declined to participate in December’s strike action - had not been identified as ‘a significant risk’, and so not placed on any such leave. Again, union-busting impetus could scarcely have been more blatant.

What this account, perhaps, does not convey is the damage wrought on the workers’ mental health by the trustees’ behaviour. One or other colleague was reduced to tears on seemingly a daily basis, another shared with me their uncertainty that they would ‘survive’ the coming months, while I have at times myself felt lower than I can ever recall- to the extent that the act of sitting down to write this account has, in itself, been traumatising. With bizarre symmetry, it has often felt as though the Trustees’ actions have mirrored the violence routinely wrought on our service users by state institutions such as the Home Office. And I can scarcely even begin to consider the impact of the organisation’s chaotic and abrupt closure on those service users.

Looking ahead

That 20 years’ hard work and tenacity can be undone in a matter of weeks, and that workers have absolutely no control over the structures they have built over that time, is of course depressing in the extreme. But it also presents an opportunity for workers within the charity sector to learn and to build new structures to meet their and their service users’ needs. With that in mind, former workers at ASIRT have united with other comrades and supporters to form a new entity, the Midlands Immigration Support Team (MIST). We have taken direct inspiration here from initiatives such as the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Argentina, in which workers took over their workplaces after they were abandoned by their employers- just as ASIRT’s trustees abandoned the organisation, opting to close down a valued community resource rather than negotiating with their workers around wages and conditions.

MIST is looking to move forward as a Charitable Community Benefit Society, set up with the support of Co-ops UK. We have drafted a constitution, in partnership with advisors from within the UK Co-op movement. While this will allow us to apply for charitable funding- meaning that we, again, can provide legal advice and representation for free to those without the means to pay privately - the co-operative nature of the constitution seeks to ensure greater transparency and accountability, preventing capricious or malicious decisions over which workers and service users have no control.

Our aspiration is that this will provide an exciting new democratic model for charitable organisations, given the ongoing importance of those organisations’ role in filling the gaps in access to care and justice brought about by the violence of neoliberal capitalism. We have put in place bespoke rules, introducing accountability rules for directors, who include ASIRT staff members, with structures including a membership and a stakeholder forum comprised of members, staff, clients and partner organisations, making MIST, in the view of our sponsors Co-op’s UK, a workers’ co-operative, and the first of its kind in the UK.

In doing this, we are also looking to explore the links between unionisation and socialisation. We believe that a key task of trade unions should be the development of movement density, and that rather than simply improving the conditions of workers in private (or charitable) enterprises, we should seek control of our means of production, using this newly socialised infrastructure to support the broader movement for justice. The founding of MIST, under co-operative principles, will represent the unionisation of legal immigration representation, with the effective longer term goal of socialising it. The aspiration is to build to the point where we will be able to run a surplus and support other similar projects, in keeping with those co-operative principles, while monthly members’ subs can help to fund the costs of extortionate Home Office application fees for those without the means to pay them. Thus, the project will serve as a mutual aid resource, rather than simply another top-down charity.

We are well aware of the talent, passion and commitment of our colleagues and comrades within the migrant justice sector, as we are aware of the ongoing need for our work in the light of the state’s relentless attacks on migrants’ rights, and we are fiercely committed to the idea that workers within that sector should have the control over their working conditions that the unhappy history of ASIRT’s demise so vividly demonstrates is presently lacking. The struggle for migrant justice is indivisible from the struggle for workers’ justice.


Dave Stamp

Dave Stamp is a qualified social worker, an OISC regulated immigration advisor, and a trade unionist, with over 20 years’ experience working in the voluntary and community sector.