On data rights, immigration, privilege, power, and the shit life throws at you

Musings / UK policy
a heart-shaped leaf on a gravel path

This week, my professional work involved a lot of time spent on the interplay between privacy, data rights, and immigration. In the post-Brexit era, we tend to think of those issues as they are now, meaning the political manifestation of xenophobia, racism, and the erosion of fundamental rights. For me, however, my interest in these issues goes a lot farther back.

When I permanently immigrated to the UK nearly twenty years ago, via the spousal route that existed at the time, my new life here, and my future, became defined and ultimately constrained by my first experiences in the UK workplace. These experiences were brutal and soul-destroying, to the point where they permanently altered my core beliefs. Even so, it took me until this year to realise how much those experiences have influenced the work I do today. And it occurs to me that what I had to consider as my normal – meaning just the everyday shit you have to put up with as a legal immigrant in the UK – would astonish most people.

What’s more, I didn’t talk much about these experiences because I couldn’t. Another thing immigrants do is keep quiet, lest complaining about any of the shit in their lives jeopardise their status and eventual citizenship. But in hindsight, considering how I did my citizenship process during the New Labour years, I think I’m safe to tell the tale now.

So let me tell you about what’s normal for a legal immigrant in terms of the interplay between data rights, privacy, and migration, why it matters, and what it means for the power dynamics that surround them in the future we’re building right now.

Let’s set the scene.

The first thing you have to understand about my work ethic is that from the age of 18, I was an enthusiastic temp worker. I had to work up to 30 hours a week as a university student, as it was 1) America and I had to pay for it all and 2) my sole parent was dying in a hospice, meaning I had neither a family nor an income to fall back on. I sought out on-campus jobs which worked around my class schedule so that I could spend the hours between classes working in admin jobs. On Fridays and during the summers, I partnered with an utterly brilliant temp agency who sent me anywhere in Washington that needed me, meaning I was never short of a shift or an honest day’s wage. And I was never afraid to do work that was “below” me if that’s what needed to be done.

What that meant, after my student life, is that my default setting when job hunting or looking for work was to register with temp agencies for the steady work that pays the bills and gets you through, even if that work wasn’t the best gig in the world. But the one thing about agency work, as you know, is that you have no working rights or, for that matter, human rights. It is what it is. Hold that thought, because it’s going to get ugly.

Now let’s add on the complication: to progress through the game that is the route to citizenship, not working was not an option. I would have to be fairly constantly employed, with no questionable gaps, if I wanted to, you know, continue living under the same roof in the same country as my then-spouse. So I could not be choosy. I had to take the jobs that were offered, and I didn’t have much room for discernment.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, I’ll tell you. It starts with my very first job in this country, which came as soon as I had the stamp in my passport granting me the right to work, and was actively job hunting but still needed interim employment to prove the worthiness of my character.

Up the Crow Road

I could bore you all with the background of how it happened, but the long story short is that the very first job I had in the UK, courtesy of a reputable and nationally-known recruitment agency, was:

I am not making this up:

Admin girl in a money laundering front.

This “business” consisted of one crazy-ass bitch who sent me to work alone in an unfurnished residential flat in the not-nice part of Glasgow’s west end. She was visibly unstable. She had lies spinning out of her mouth quicker than I could catch them. She had six bank accounts at six banks but no clients.

And my job was to sit alone in this empty, unfurnished residential flat she was renting out as the front’s address, sending out the occasional email on the dialup connection or sending off a postal letter, to make her money laundering front look vaguely legitimate. She appeared in the flat ten minutes a week, threw papers at me, and flew out.

And I stayed there, locked alone in that flat, from 9 to 5, in the Scottish winter darkness, for the four longest weeks of my life, because I had to, because I was on a provisional visa and had to work.

Eventually she crossed a line which put me at direct physical risk, involving her dropping me off in a high-security building I had no business being in, which caused me to physically run out of the building hyperventilating to get to safety. That was my exit interview, so to speak, for my very first British job.

Naturally the recruitment agency ripped me a new arsehole for not going through a formal process with them. Eventually they backed off once they realised they had a money launderer on their books who was taking them for a ride too and that I, the substantially overqualified temp they’d sent to work for her, was not the problem.

So that was my crash introduction to the fact that you can come to this country with a solid work ethic, an education at a world-class university, and a CV worth its weight in gold, and still find yourself in a situation where you have no rights or recourse or options whatsoever, save to pick up your handbag and run; and then, you’ll be treated as the cause of the problem and not the result.

But remember, I was on a provisional visa and I had to work. So I asked the agency to give me another temp job.

And they did, in a way that meant that the crazy-ass money laundering bitch was just the warm-up.

Oh, you’ve got her this week

So the next week the nationally-known recruitment agency sent me to another admin temp job. Just typing and filing. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the place they sent me to was an NHS community psychiatric facility. This is not where you go for a counselling session. This is where you go if you occupy the transitional space between a specialist’s care and, to use the parlance of the field, voluntary or involuntary admittance to “the wards”.

My job was to type the letters that psychiatrists dictated into their little tape recorders (this is such an early 00’s story, isn’t it), post them out, and file a copy in the patient’s file. At least, that’s what the recruitment agency told me it would be.

In truth it involved two more things. One was being put directly onto the computerised NHS database for the entire fucking city of Glasgow, less than a half hour after the first time I walked into the building, with no training, supervision, or support. I could have been anybody. I could have pulled up any record I wanted. I could have amended any record I wanted. I could have read anything I wanted. And I did. Nobody cared.

That was my first introduction to the UK’s data protection regime.

The other thing was being put into direct contact with psychiatric patients. They’d contact me directly on the phone, wanting to speak to their consultant, and then unload their literal derangement on me when I couldn’t just put them through. What’s more, the facility was perpetually short staffed, so they’d send me downstairs to man the front desk, where I would have to witness things like rough sleepers licking the door handles. One day I was relieved from the desk minutes before a deeply ill woman began smashing the waiting room furniture onto her tiny child’s head.

I even got myself a psychotic stalker. She was known for developing obsessive fixations with the staff in the facility, and it became my turn. So she’d phone me at all hours, or show up outside begging to see me, meaning I’d have to stay barricaded in the typist pool room for the full working day.

Did anyone take this seriously? No. It was literally the office joke: “oh, you’ve got her this week.”

So that’s what could possibly go wrong.

Did I have any support, or help, or people looking after me? lol. I was just the admin temp, and an immigrant admin temp at that, which meant I counted for fuck all. I worked entirely outside of any team or managerial structure or consideration. (I was “staff” enough to be stalked, right enough.) I was so removed from any other human consideration that on Friday afternoons, I’d have to trawl the building looking for any random human being to co-sign my timesheet so I could fax it over to the agency and get paid.

Over the weeks I spent in the facility, four of the people I typed letters about ceased to exist. Three of them – a family who had fled armed conflict – jumped together from the high floors of the tower block where they had been sent to live. A news photo at the time showed the imprints of their bodies in the grass where they had landed, stamped deep into the ground. The fourth ran onto the motorway at rush hour. That’s heavy stuff to deal with in what’s meant to be a secretarial job.

So that was my crash introduction to the fact that keeping your head down and following the rules of legal immigration, and the route to citizenship, are how you end up as the admin girl of stalking and suicides and snooping on the health records of an entire city, with no training or clearance or support or supervision or workplace rights.

And I had to keep my mouth shut, as the provisionally resident job-stealing immigrant that I was, and get on with the job. So I did.

Finally I landed a full-time job, which saved me from the risk to life and limb, if not the workplace misery. But there was one more complication to that interplay between my work, my data, and my immigration status.

Flying Solo

Now obviously, having jobs meant I had money coming in. Money has to go somewhere. For most people, this means a bank account.

Not if you’re a dirty immigrant. I wasn’t allowed to have a bank account.

The bank where I opened my first UK account – the only bank available to me at the time – refused to give me a regular bank account. By that, I mean a basic, everyday current account, the one you use to buy groceries.

There were various unexplainable issues, you see, caused by someone who didn’t sound like they did asking for a bank account.

So what they gave me was called a “cashcard” account. It was the cash-only account, with a Solo card, which they normally give to teenagers as a starter savings account. The account’s limitations were ridiculous – you couldn’t set up direct debits, transactions were regularly assumed to be fraudulent, and then as now, you couldn’t even use the card in most places. I could take out cash from the ATM. That was it.

What they told me was this was a provisional test for me to prove my worthiness, as a dirty foreigner, for a regular current account. Fair enough, I thought.

Six months went by. I went into the branch to ask for an upgrade to a regular current account. They refused.

A year went by. Repeat. Refuse.

18 months went by. Repeat. Refuse.

Two years went by. Repeat. Refuse.

I said I’d take my business elsewhere. IT DOESN’T MATTER, they spat at me. Other banks would be required to treat me just the same, being someone who, you know, (insert various issues which come down to xenophobia and sexism), or so they said.

At this point I was a married woman in my late twenties, with a full-time managerial position, permanent residency, and a child’s cash account.

Finally, someone at work suggested that I go to my MP at his surgery to ask for his help. My MP at the time was a member of Gordon Brown’s cabinet, and probably had better things to do than ask for a chat with a parochial small town bank manager. But within 48 hours of me popping into his surgery, the bank had couriered me the paperwork to sign to open my regular everyday current account. At long last, I was a valid adult.

I got on with my life, but I couldn’t quite shake the bitterness that comes from being patronised and treated like a literal child over something as simple as a basic banking account. So I kept digging, and I got to the truth over why I’d spent two years being spat at.

The truth was, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t a probationary period. And it wasn’t even my immigration status.

The reason the bank had refused to give me a basic everyday current account was because, drum roll please:

basic everyday current accounts did not accrue any points, for the bank staff, towards their mandatory sales quotas in the bank’s mandatory incentive structure.

That was it. That was why I’d been treated like a literal child for over two years.

So that – coupled with my two deeply unpleasant workplace experiences via the nationally-known recruitment agency – was my introduction to the fact that when you come to this country, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how hard you apply yourself, or what you have to offer. The path that leads to the rest of your life, the choices you have, and the opportunities you are given, will be determined by the sales quotas and incentives hanging on the person who is sitting across the table from you during that particular week, whether that’s a bank manager on an incentive schedule or a recruitment consultant with sales targets to meet.

Those quotas and incentives, to those people, were only ever financial.

But to me, those quotas and incentives, and the consequences I faced because of them, weren’t just personal. They became political. They always will be.

Lived experiences

This post may have seemed like a long and venting rant about two years in my life that involved an absurd amount of external trauma. But there is a point I hope I’ve made here.

That point is about the imbalances of power that exist between people who are not born in a country, people who are, systems and institutions, and laws and policy. Those imbalances involve a lot of data. They involve a lot of rights. They involve a lot of obligations. They involve a lot of consequences. And yes, they involve a hell of a lot of hurt.

If you’ve been born and raised in this country, you’ll never understand what it’s like to have to lock yourself in an empty flat in a strange neighbourhood for the benefit of a money launderer because you’re at risk of deportation if you don’t.

If you’ve been born and raised in this country, you’ll never understand what it’s like to be laughed at by your co-workers because there’s a psychotic woman sobbing outside demanding to see you.

If you’ve been born and raised in this country, you’ll never understand what it’s like to not be able to do something as basic as take out a magazine subscription because you can’t do a direct debit on a child’s savings account.

If you’ve been born and raised in this country, and the Home Office is never a political concept which crosses your path, then you have rights and you have protections and you have options and you have recourse. Those rights you have are carved in stone and they are not conditional. You are not obliged to constantly prove yourself, constantly degrade yourself, or constantly put yourself at risk, for no reward or return other than the shits and giggles of others.

The rest of us find ourselves chipped away little by little until there is barely anything left, and that little bit that is left is seen as proof of weakness, of a flawed character, and of guilt, rather than as proof that those things were taken away by people who really were weak, flawed, and guilty.

So keep that in mind as you are designing laws, and systems, and institutions, which involve the lives and the opportunities and, yes, the data of people who weren’t born with the privileges you were.

Because you have more power than you know, and you have that power because it has been taken away from others. You have the privilege to ignore the imbalances of power that exist around you. You also have the choice to be complicit in them. That is your choice. It always is.

The Author

We are people of enormous power and influence over the open web. I empower digital professionals to use that power wisely. I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. This is my personal site, and does not reflect the work or opinions of my employer.