By Andy Sibcy
I WAS relatively new to Jersey when I got myself embroiled in what became quite a feisty row in the newsroom. It was sparked by the good people of St Lawrence, who were staging an old-time musical singalong in the parish hall which finished with a rousing rendition of a song called ‘There’s a boat in the morning’. The audience were encouraged to join in the chorus and belt out those words. There’s nothing like collective singing to cement group identity.
That phrase was common currency back in the mid-noughties. If you didn’t like what you found in your new Island home, well, you’d better pack your bags and head down to the Harbour. It might have been said part in jest, but jokes only enjoyed by the powerful and privileged are rarely all that funny. I like to think the Island has moved on, and that the phrase is now seen as being well past its sell-by date.
I certainly don’t hear it very much these days, but that might be because, as editor of an established Jersey institution, I have earned the right to say what I think. Or it might be that, having accrued my ten years’ residency, done all right for myself and forged a pretty nice life in the Island, I feel slightly less threatened by those who want to drive a wedge between ‘real’ Islanders and others. Jersey is certainly not alone in exhibiting this tribal phenomenon, but it is easy to see how it could be more pronounced in an insular community in which ‘population’ is never far from political centre stage.
I don’t think the people enjoying a community-focused night out in St Lawrence considered they were offending anyone. It was simply harmless fun. Frankly, I don’t care much what they sing about in parish halls as long as there is an openness and honesty in any conversations their actions inspire.
Seventeen or so years ago, it wasn’t the words of the song that got me so animated, it was the response I got when discussing the many issues the song raised – and the ingrained assumptions and attitudes those conversations revealed. And perhaps more than all of that, the level of ignorance about the barriers immigrants face as they try to build a life in the Island. And the lack of interest.
Jersey seeks to control its population through access to work and housing. Since I was a newbie, it has also limited access to free healthcare to new arrivals. You are not allowed to vote for the first two years and cannot claim benefits for five or access social rented housing for ten.
What used to be the ‘Reg of Uns’ and is now the Housing and Work Law has been central to underpinning attitudes towards incomers, giving them a legal status, and ensuring that for the most part they have access only to the worst accommodation and the least well-paid jobs. If you were lucky, you could be deemed essential or now entitled. Words are important because they shape attitudes; just consider the opposite of those terms and think how they might make people on the wrong side of the fence feel.
These mechanisms for controlling immigration have, I would suggest, been instrumental in creating a mentality in which the contributions played by immigrants have tended to be undervalued, and worse. For years, Jersey was a very attractive place to come to for work for people in all sectors of the economy. Not so much now. Today’s concern is more about a lack of people to do jobs in retail, construction, hospitality and many other areas. The cost of living, Brexit and the housing crisis have conspired to create a labour shortage that has been a wake-up call, but have attitudes adjusted to this reality?
Last week, a letter to the editor arrived for publication which suggested that they had not. It reported, incorrectly, that newly arrived immigrants were being told that they would be given a flat if they were pregnant. At best it was nonsense gossip and hearsay, at worst it was an attempt to whip up anti-foreigner sentiment. I rejected it, but, I regret to say, our processes failed and it was published in error.
I have since responded to a number of complaints, explaining that the letter should not have been published and saying sorry. I repeat that apology now. We have reviewed and improved our processes to ensure that such letters do not slip through the net.
Unfortunately, a number of people republished the letter on social media, either to complain or to fuel further unpleasant commentary, amplifying its content further. Some said that it was good that such views were published, as they reflected what some people think and that should be a wake-up call to take action. I met an Islander of colour this week who said that the letter had sparked some really interesting conversations in his workplace. An immigrant, he was glad it had been published. I am an unashamed advocate that views should be aired and challenged, rather than hidden away in echo chambers in the dark recesses of social media. But I think this letter crossed a line and we should not have run it.
Those who jumped at the opportunity to fan the flames might be in the minority, but there remains a sizeable seam of Islanders who are comfortable expressing anti-immigrant views in public. There is also still widespread ignorance about the challenges many immigrants, especially those without qualifications for housing, face when moving here. I know how much these issues affect people’s quality of life because recently arrived colleagues are in that position – and tell me. Trying to find a place to live, worrying about falling ill and being saddled with a huge bill and wanting to vote if they are taxed – they are feeling what I felt 22 years ago. They are equally frustrated, as I have long been, that so few politicians speak up for unqualified immigrants, although I think that might be changing.
Incomers – from the UK, France, Portugal, Poland, Africa, the Caribbean, the Philippines, Nepal and many other places play a crucial and valuable part in the life of this island. We should be welcoming and thanking them for choosing Jersey. Our quality of life depends on these Islanders who have left their homes to contribute to Jersey’s success.