Why do Ben & Jerry’s care about refugee rights in the UK?

In recent months, the American ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s have taken an interest in the UK’s refugee situation.

As the media draws more attention to migrants crossing the channel than usual, the Home Office is fighting to stay out of the limelight. It seems that this particular corporation has decided that they should start using their platform to fight for refugee rights.

What are Ben & Jerry’s angry about?

Between June 2019 and June 2020, there were 32,423 asylum applications made in the United Kingdom. This is far lower than in other European countries, with around 165,600 applications made in Germany, and 129,000 in France in the same timeframe. A proportion of the UK applications were made by refugees who managed to survive the treacherous Channel crossing, often arriving in overcrowded and unsafe boats.

These migrants usually come from the poorest and most tumultuous parts of the world, such as Yemen and Syria amongst others. Unfortunately, applying for asylum in the UK is virtually impossible if you are not in the country, so many people choose to be smuggled by organised crime gangs — first in lorries, and then in boats as port security tightened.

After a record 325 migrants came ashore in one day in early August, the UK home secretary Priti Patel pledged to make these crossings “unviable”. In order to do this, Patel said the Home Office was working to stop small boats leaving France, and to intercept those that do.

Ben & Jerry’s openly challenged Priti Patel

In a series of tweets, Ben & Jerry’s confronted Patel, arguing that “people wouldn’t make these journeys if they had any other choice”, and that “[p]eople cannot be illegal”. They also referred to Refugee Action, a leading UK charity which aims to help refugees build new lives in the UK, stating that “experts at organisations…want to talk solutions with Ministers, so why not have these conversations?”

In response, a source close to the Home Secretary branded the company “overpriced junk food”, and Foreign Office minister James Cleverly tweeted “Can I have a large scoop of statistically inaccurate virtue signalling with my grossly overpriced ice cream, please?”

Having taken place three weeks ago, this exchange can be considered very old news. But Ben & Jerry’s have taken their so-called “virtue signalling” (the habit of indicating that one has virtue by expressing disgust or favour for certain political ideas or cultural happenings, usually to improve your own self-image) one step further. They are now advertising on both Facebook and Instagram, asking the public to sign a petition demanding that asylum seekers be given the right to work while waiting for their status to be confirmed.

The UK government does not allow people to work while they are seeking asylum

In the UK, once a person has made an application for asylum, they often have to wait a long time for their status to be approved, with 72% of those seeking asylum waiting more than six months. In the meantime, they might be placed in accommodation anywhere in the UK, with some kept in detention if they are planned to be sent back to Europe.

At the end of June 2020, 54,073 people were waiting for an outcome on their initial claim for asylum. Of these, 38,756 (which is 72%) have been waiting for more than 6 months. The Covid-19 pandemic has only slowed the decision-making process further. There is also no maximum time limit in place for those held in detention, allowing people (including children) to be held indefinitely.

During the wait for confirmation of refugee status, people are not allowed to work, having to rely on the £5 per day subsistence support that the Home Office supplies. If they are fortunate enough to be awarded status, this support stops after 28 days. Ben & Jerry’s argue that “waiting isn’t working” in their advertisements, with further information on this crisis on their website, claiming that being unable to work prevents people from integrating within the community, and has large impacts on their mental and physical health.

They also point out that people could have valuable skills that are not being utilised properly, potentially benefiting the UK economy while they wait. When you click on the Ben & Jerry’s advert, you are taken to a page asking you to sign their petition. If you were then to sign it, it clearly states that Ben & Jerry’s will not receive or process any of the information you provide nor contact you as a result of signing this petition.

So, what are Ben & Jerry’s getting out of this deal?

The risks to making a stand like this are obvious. They are potentially irritating and pushing away a large portion of their customers, especially in a country like Britain, where immigration can be a touchy subject. However, acting in this manner can help to get people talking about the brand, and capturing at least some of the public mood can make the company seem current and changing with the times.

This isn’t a first for the company. Ben & Jerry’s do have precedent for corporate activism. In a 700 word statement, the ice-cream makers offered up a plan to “dismantle white supremacy in all its forms”, denouncing the death of George Floyd as “the result of inhumane police brutality”. Although (as the current CEO admits), Ben & Jerry’s is still a predominately white company, it has donated to the BLM campaign, and uses a flavour of its product (Justice ReMix’d) to educate on incarceration policies and the lack of schooling available for communities of colour.

It could be argued that they practice what they preach

The company currently champions a living wage for hourly employees of nearly $18, although they have found it difficult to implement this within their franchises. They also employ an internal activism team which aims to enable Ben & Jerry’s to deliver its social justice mission with as much authenticity as possible. On the other hand, they have been criticised for their use of palm oil, and in 2018 were accused of creating a “false marketing perception”, as they used the term “Caring Dairy”, but continued to purchase milk from “factory-style farming practices”.

The debate on whether corporations have a social responsibility will rage on, with some people uncomfortable with large businesses so openly interfering with matters of politics, and others keen for such a visible platform to be put to good use. However, in a world so willing to divide itself (#boycottbenandjerrys was trending on twitter after the Home Secretary tweets), are Ben & Jerry’s on the right path, or are they simply cool with virtue signalling?

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