London's Catholic bishops are opening their arms to migrant workers, says Francis Davis Next Monday, 10 London Catholic bishops — including Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop Kevin McDonald and Bishop Thomas McMahon — will send a powerful signal of solidarity with the poorest people in Britain. Together, they have invited thousands of migrant workers to Westminster Cathedral to celebrate the feast of St Joseph the Worker.
Ever since Cardinal Manning raised his voice against exploitative landlords committing "the sin of exacting the most rent while doing the least repairs", poor Londoners have known that the capital's Catholic bishops have been on their side. The event on Monday will, however, break new ground. The "Mass of celebration" for migrants is the first of its kind and indicates the bishops' strong support for the work of ethnic community Catholic chaplains in particular, and the wider social and pastoral needs of new migrants to Britain in general.
Today migrant workers are an inescapable reality of British Catholic life. Initial research suggests that there may be more than 250,000 Catholic migrant workers in London alone. The Polish plumber and the Filipina nurse are becoming icons of our modern times. In Crewe. Poles are the fastest growing ethnic minority. while from the Channel Islands to parts of Scotland, Poles, the Portuguese and others form the backbone of the service and agricultural sectors. They are joined by migrants from every global region who leave home in search of personal safety, political or religious asylum and economic improvement. Employers and the Government claim that we need 1.2 million more migrants to do the jobs that our ageing and increasingly hi-tech British workforce will no longer touch. Caffe Nero. for example, employs staff
from 66 different nationalities, while other employers believe that migrants work harder and more creatively than locals. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, migrants from the new European accession countries make very little claim on our social benefit system.
Some migrant workers do well. Many are students who have come to study. Those with professional and technical skills settle in fast and are often highly rewarded by their employers for identifying fellow countrymen of a similar calibre for the firm to hire. Research suggests that European Union countries attract "the migrants they deserve"; migrants to Britain are therefore entrepreneurial and self-reliant, despite sonic media myths to the contrary.
The majority of migrants, however, encounter the harsh underbelly of the free market, where former patterns of mutual support and encouragement can be absent. Many migrants are only able to secure lowpaid jobs in hospitality, catering and cleaning. Because many are still learning the language, they are at risk of exploitation from unscrupulous employers. One Sri Lankan shop worker we have interviewed was here legally, spoke no English, and was paid £4 per hour for a 74-hour week, on condition that he rented a room in his employer's house for £80 per week plus £20 for meals. He was learning English by memorising labels from the food in the shop where he worked — with no idea that he was paid less than the legal minimum wage.
In some parts of Britain, landlords now state openly they will take "no Poles or Portuguese", reminding many of Catholic life 50 years ago when it was the Irish who were not welcome.
Those migrants who have taken even bigger risks by coming to this country with
out legal status face larger challenges still. Unscrupulous middle-men try to sell them National Insurance numbers. From mainland China many have made the journey under the impression that they will find food, accommodation and legitimate work. Upon arrival they find 100-hour weeks and bedspace on the floor of a restaurant.
Over the next six months the Von Hugel Institute, commissioned by London's bishops, will be researching the size, location, and social and pastoral needs of Catholic migrants in the capital.This study will lead to a set of recommendations for action at the local Church level.
The Cardinal and the other London bishops are challenging negative views of the new migrants. and asking the question: "What are our responsibilities to these, the new poor?" How do we offer the Christian gift of hospitality to those for whom our faith is such a serious bedrock of their existence? It is certainly the case that things need to change if positive steps are to be taken to build a new hope for these thousands of new Catholics in our midst.
The London bishops are to be congratulated for raising these issues in such a pioneering way. Our research project on the Church in London is among the first of its kind in Europe. After Monday's Mass the community organisation London Citizens will launch a new "Migrant Workers Association" so that those without access to employment and other advice are able to find it. It is hoped that this study, and the new association, can be the first of several in cities throughout Britain. In this way the Church will enable support where the state, trade unions and the market have failed.
As a Catholic community we need to accelerate our understanding of these needs and enhance the ways in which we share
examples of excellent pastoral care and support. In Jersey, the Church has built a pioneering "welcome centre" which provides welfare rights advice, language classes and a community base for extensive catechetical activity. In Southampton, the local council has recognised the Church's special engagement with these new communities by funding a worker based in the city centre parish. In the National Health Service some of our hospital chaplains, supported by Aindliary Bishop Tom Williams of Liverpool, are developing new ways of supporting workers in the NHS, while in Bristol the hospital chaplain has been active in raising awareness of the needs of Filipina nurses. The Archdiocese of Birmingham has much to teach other areas, given its diverse population and the ground-breaking work of its Irish centre over the decades. In Cardiff local faith groups have founded Asylum Justice to provide free legal advice to those new migrants turned down for all other forms of legal aid.
The Church in England and Wales needs to dig deep into its historical memory and moral reserves to meet these new pastoral and political challenges. Our Church has always thrived on its willingness to be enriched by waves of migration to our shores. On Monday London's bishops will stand at the heart of that tradition as they welcome the world in our country to Westminster Cathedral. Catholics across Britain should now look for the wider Church to follow this lead. If this means challenging the Government, and our parishes, to greater engagement, so be it.
Francis Davis is co-director of the Centre for Faith in Society at the Von Hugel huhfate and is leading the London bishops' research commission on migration