Unite celebrates Windrush Day

As Unite honours Windrush legacy, union demands action over scandal

Reading time: 6 min

Unite is celebrating Windrush Day on Saturday (June 22), marking 76 years since the arrival of the Empire Windrush after the Second World War.

Unite is proud to honour the Windrush generation and celebrate the dreams and successes of those brave young people who persevered despite the racism they faced, and will continue to campaign for justice for those affected by the Windrush scandal.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “It is time for the incoming government to finally right the wrongs and fully compensate the Windrush generation, resolve all the cases, include losses to private pensions in the compensation scheme, and end the hostile environment policy.”

The ship brought hundreds of West Indian men, women and children and is considered emblematic of the ‘Windrush generation’ – people from the Caribbean who played a vital role in rebuilding the UK after the ravages of war.

The Empire Windrush docked at the Tilbury Docks in London on June 22, 1948. No preparation had been made for the men, women, and children’s arrival. While some had addresses to go to, many spent their first weeks in an air raid shelter under Clapham South station.

They were among the first groups of people to arrive to help tackle severe post-war skills shortages in Britain, whose population had fallen by 1.4m after the war. Being part of the Commonwealth, Caribbean people were seen as a source of potential labour.

Between 10,000 to 20,000 people from the Caribbean were involved in the war effort. During this period a massive hurricane in the Caribbean damaged 90 per cent of banana trees and almost 50 per cent of coconuts in Jamaica which affected the livelihood of many.

In 1948, the BBC World Service broadcasted adverts saying that “you are needed to come and build the mother country”. Adverts also said that “you could earn £25 per week”. This was aimed predominantly at servicemen who were asked to return after the war to rebuild Britain.

From 1948 to 1952 there were about 2,000 people arriving each year, but by 1957 onwards, the number had increased to around 40,000 per year.

Chair of Unite National Retired Members Committee Monica Taylor recounted her family’s journey to the UK in the late 50s from the St Kitts in the Caribbean.

She shared how “the Windrush generation brought with them their solidarity and their joy, but faced open hostility from many. Despite this, they succeeded in building their future with dignity and hope which remains today.”

The most common sectors Windrush workers were employed in included manufacturing, construction, hospitality, postal services, the NHS, hospitality, railways and the bus service. The closed shop operated in these industries, and many joined trade unions and some became union reps.

Among these was Sir Bill Morris, who would later go on to serve as the first Black general secretary of the TGWU, Unite’s predecessor union.

While Unite embraces celebrations of this powerful legacy, the union believes Windrush Day must also be a day of action.

In 2018, it came to light that people who had arrived in the UK from the late 1940s to early 1970s were being wrongfully detained and some even deported under the ‘hostile environment’ immigration regime created by Theresa May when she served as Home Secretary.

Up until 1973, anyone moving from a Commonwealth country had a legal right to stay in the UK indefinitely. But because many arrived as children and travelled on their parents’ passports, tens of thousands of Caribbean people from that era had no documents proving their right to stay.

Landing card slips recording their arrival, which could be used as proof, were destroyed by the Home Office in 2009. When the Tory government introduced immigration checks which required employers, landlords and the NHS to demand proof of the right to live in the UK, thousands of legal Commonwealth residents, many of whom had lived in the UK for decades, fell through the cracks.

They lost their jobs, their homes and their freedom, with many thrown into immigration detention centres. Others were deported to countries they barely knew and some even died after being wrongfully deported. While the government acknowledged the lives they ruined in 2018, the Windrush Scandal is not over.

A compensation scheme set up by the government in 2019 has been beset by delays and failures  – according to Home Office statistics from earlier this year, 14 per cent have been waiting for over a year for compensation, and only about a quarter of the total number of claims have received compensation. As of January 2024, at least 53 people have died waiting to be compensated.

Commenting ahead of Windrush Day, Chair of Unite National Black and Asian Ethnic Minorities Committee and the Executive Council member for BAEM, Susan Matthews, said “The lives of the Windrush generation were turned upside down. They should not have to fight and wait for compensation but receive it in FULL, now.

“The next government must urgently tackle the root cause of the Windrush injustice to prevent this from happening again.

“This Conservative government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy as part of its election campaign, spouts hateful rhetoric, causes division and whips up racism against migrants.

“In Unite, we will continue to support BAEM workers in challenging institutional racism and discrimination and build a more inclusive society.”

Monica agreed, noting that the UK has been slow to remember the thousands of men and hundreds of women from former British Caribbean colonies, who when told “your country needs you”, came forward, not once but twice, signing on the dotted line in defence of the “Motherland”. She added that “we have come a long way but more needs to be done — we must keep raising awareness of the plight of the Windrush generation.”

By Hajera Blagg