Cameron Penny is a financial services lobbyist.

A few days ago a Spanish-language website reported that on 4 July immigration officers had swooped on “training sessions” hosted by Byron Burgers at some of its London restaurants. Those who spoke to El Iberico said that it seemed at least 50 people were deported as a result of having been found working illegally in the UK. Moreover, their source suggested “another 150” evaded the dawn raid and are now “currently hidden.”

Almost inevitably this has led to a left-wing campaign to #boycottbyron based on an allegation their employer worked with the authorities to enable Home Office Enforcement Officers to do their job. A number of questions arise:

How many illegal migrants were detained by immigration enforcement officials?

How many of those were subsequently deported to their country of origin?

Is Byron receiving a fine for employing illegal migrants?

If so, how large a fine?

These are important questions. When Theresa May stood outside Downing Street and pledged reforms to ensure this country “works for the many, not the privileged few” it was precisely this type of law-breaking behaviour which she had in mind. This was not a one-off incident. Byron Burgers has form. In September last year an illegal migrant working in one of their outlets was arrested in a smaller raid by immigration enforcement officers in Wandsworth.

Throughout the EU referendum campaign, and indeed well before it, many of us probably less impacted by cut-price labour than others too quickly dismissed claims that foreigners were coming over to the UK and taking job opportunities from local people. Clearly it isn’t quite as cut and dry as this. EU migrants who have come here to work and work for a legal wage are contributors to our economy. If our welfare system is seen as too generous to those in work then it’s that we need to reform. We should not demonise legal migration nor attack those businesses that employ migrant workers in accordance with the law.

However, we do need to take a stronger line as Conservatives when it comes to businesses found to employ illegal migrants. Why do some businesses employ an illegal migrant in the first place? Could it be because they can circumvent the National Living Wage? That all those ‘troublesome’ employment rights that accrue to legal workers can be forgotten? After all, an illegal migrant won’t be top of the queue to complain if you pay them £4 an hour rather than £7.20. This shouldn’t detract from the personal tragedy of those affected who will have set down roots here and who, in their own way, were trying to better themselves. It is a cruel irony that the state has removed people who exhibit those values of work and aspiration that we want to engender in all residents of this country. We shouldn’t bemoan the exercise of the law, though; those who come illegally to this country and undercut other workers know the risks they take.

Instead we should decry the calls of those who would boycott Byron and the firm itself. Boycotting won’t fundamentally change the behaviour of those who condoned employing illegal workers. The Home Office claims that at least 35 people were arrested on suspicion of breaching immigration laws. In what is still a relatively small firm 35 illegal workers must raise more than an eyebrow about the actions or inaction of management. Moreover, fines simply won’t work. For firms that skirt the law fines all too often come to be seen as just another cost of doing business.

As Spencer Pitfield wrote earlier this week, it is time for Conservatives to come together to show that it is the Conservative Party which understands “ordinary peoples’ concerns and cares about the rights of workers.” In my view it is also the Conservative Party that has to show it won’t tolerate business as usual when it comes to those who break the labour laws that others abide by.

It is time the Government introduced legislation to do away with the system of fines for those employing illegal workers. That is currently the punishment for employers who recruit illegal workers. They simply pay a fine and the Home Office even provides a “statutory excuse checksheet” to help them explain away their error.

It is time that being found employing an illegal migrant becomes a criminal offence punishable with jail time. It isn’t good enough, fair or just that white collar criminals can pay their way out of trouble. So don’t boycott Byron. Instead lobby your MP, write to Amber Rudd and push for real reform that will restore integrity to the labour market and rightly make business owners responsible for their role in it.

38 comments for: Cameron Penny: Don’t boycott Byron Burgers – just make employing illegal workers an offence punished with jail time

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