It’s been nice to see the UK public leaning out their windows to clap and bang pots once a week to celebrate healthcare workers. It’s nice to see parents pinning their children’s drawings of rainbows to the windows with the words “Thank You NHS”. But with frontline workers risking their lives every day, it’s difficult to believe that these well-intentioned gestures are enough.
It was from a similar viewpoint that the political art campaign, Immigrants Are Essential, was recently launched to shed light on the essential workers coming in every day to clean the streets of American cities, take care of loved ones, stock groceries and deliver online shopping. The campaign is being run online by the non-profit organisations National Immigration Law Center and Resilience Force under the hashtag #ImmigrantsAreEssential.
The aim of the project is to get people to stop applauding workers and start doing things that actually help them – namely, urging politicians to repair their policies so that the immigrant workers who protect others every day are themselves protected.
To this end, the two non-profits have teamed up with Soze creative agency to draw attention to the immigrants on the frontlines by creating a series of portraits of immigrants working as nurses, emergency workers and other essential positions. As Saket Soni, Founder and Executive Director of Resilience Force, explains:
“We’re urging politicians to create policy change that protects immigrant workers, who are risking their lives on the front lines of this pandemic. Immigrants are not only essential workers, they are essential to America’s recovery from the disaster of COVID-19, and our elected officials must act urgently to ensure they are supported and protected.
“When the pandemic hit, immigrant workers who were deemed unskilled became essential almost overnight. Millions of immigrants including non-citizen immigrants and DACA recipients are keeping America’s healthcare system, farms, and food delivery services running yet our nation’s dangerous immigration policies devalue their work. The #ImmigrantsAreEssential campaign is here to give all workers a voice and urge policy change so they receive the basic human rights they deserve.
“#ImmigrantsAreEssential features work by artists from across the US, and the images created illustrate the wide range of “essential” workers who have kept going so the rest of us could stay at home.”
San Francisco designer and illustrator Kelly Malka, whose work frequently deals with world issues, women’s bodies, mental health and nature, shows her subjects working as bakers, delivery drivers, cleaners, farmers and maintenance workers. Jorge Garza, who creates art and imagery in Aztec styles, shared illustrations of people harvesting fruit and vegetables and working at supermarket checkouts.
Nikkolas Smith, a concept artist from Houston, Texas, opted to move from depictions of frontline workers in general to a portrait of one real person. His painting portrays Jesus Contreras, a DACA recipient (A US system that provides deferral from deportation for people who were brought into the country as children without lawful immigration status) who works as an EMT on the frontline.
While the project is based in the US, it is important to note that immigrant workers also play a key role in the UK. People with non-British nationalities make up 13.3% of NHS staff in hospitals and community services in England, 17% of social care workers in England and 40% of the social care workforce in London [source].
All the while, the lives of these essential workers and their families play out in an environment that is often less than hospitable – it has been suggested that the UK saw a rise in hate crimes motivated by race or religion of 21.5% in the three months following Brexit [source], while the government has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a wave of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment and a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes of 21% [source].
Just as artists have rightly championed NHS workers though the #PortraitsforNHSHeroes initiative, perhaps now is the time for UK artists to launch their own version of #ImmigrantsAreEssential to take a stand against attitudes that exclude and marginalize other key workers, at a time when we all should be working together.