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  • Writer's pictureBrother Alan

Migrant Workers - Exploited and Ignored

A Case Study From England

Br David de Verny

The typical story of a migrant worker begins on the draught stricken plains of northern Portugal or the poor eastern parts of Poland where unemployment reaches 40%. About forty thousand guest workers are employed in Lincolnshire alone. Their labour in the fields, in food processing plants and packing factories keeps the regional economy going. Their pension-, health- and other contributions help to secure the financial and economic future of the indigenous population. The foreign workers come from the poorest parts of Portugal, Poland, Latvia, the Ukraine and several other countries - not all in the EU.

Adverts in local newspapers or employment agencies in Poland or Portugal promise well paid work and accommodation in the UK. Sometimes these adverts are placed by reputable companies who will fulfill their promises. More often, however, unscrupulous gang masters, eighty-five percent of whom have a criminal record, advertise in this way. For a flight with a budget airline, which would normally cost not more than £80-100, the gang masters or their agents will charge five times as much and more. They call it “arrangement fee”. As a result, the new guest worker arrives in the UK often already burdened with debts.

The promised accommodation regularly turns out to be a room which he or she has to share with up to 3-6 other people, often using sleeping bags on the floor rather than proper beds. So called “hot-bedding” is common: after a twelve hour shift the worker falls into a bed just vacated by another foreign worker going of to his or her shift. 60% of workers are accommodated in so called houses of multiple occupation (HMOs): the gang master places fifteen people and more in a house meant for one family…. Workers are regularly moved from one house to another, their few possessions carried in a plastic bag.

But the misery does not stop here. While the factories and most farmers pay proper minimum wages for the workers, the workers themselves will only receive one or two pounds or even less after the gang master has taken his or her share. The workers are charged for transport in sometimes uninsured vehicles without seat belts, using a hardhat, wearing an overall. Sometimes they are given vouchers which they have to redeem in the gang masters own food shop. Hello, Charles Dickens! Those foreign workers who want to buy their own transport to be independent are being sold old “bangers” with no MOT or DVLA registration or information about the provenance of the car. It is therefore not surprising that road accidents are up considerably compared to other counties.

Gang masters take the workers’ passports on arrival at the airport for the officially required registration with the Home Office. It takes the Home Office three months and more to process New Arrivals who register. During that time foreign workers cannot prove who they are because the passport is the only legal document they have.

Often, the passports are not returned to their owners when they come back from the Home Office but sold on or used in fraud for vast profits. Taking the passport away ensures total dependency of the worker on the gang master - without a passport one is nobody. Not only can the workers not prove who they are, they cannot apply for a bank account or get a National Insurance Number. If workers insist on the return of their passport they are often physically assaulted, lose their job and the roof over their head. The police is normally too overstretched to do more then issue a crime number. If the foreign workers had their passports and were able to provide a bank with utility bills they could apply for a bank account. The farmer or packing firm could then pay the worker’s salary directly into this account without the gang master taking his or her illegal cut. However, more than half of all workers live in the property of their gang master and therefore do not have utility bills of their own with their name and address on… It is a vicious circle.

Many guest workers do not speak English very well which increases their dependency and exploitation. 60% of all foreign workers working for gang masters do not have a contract. Very few know about Unions and most are in constant fear of losing their job and accommodation if they complain.

In the streets of our town and villages, many foreign workers and their children are subject to racial abuse from the nastier sections of the indigenous population. Name calling and spitting happen regularly, even stone throwing has been known. Migrant workers’ cars are more frequently damaged than others. A Portuguese pub in Boston has its windows smashed regularly. Political groupings are also trying to exploit the situation by using deliberate misinformation and outright lies ...

About 8-10% of the population in South Eastern Lincolnshire are now of foreign origin. The original “first wave” of guest workers arrived about ten years ago mainly from Portugal and have been established here ever since. Most are fairly settled, are beginning to enter the housing market as buyers and have children in primary and secondary schools. Some have even started to return to Portugal.

With the arrival of other newcomers from the Eastern European New Accession States like Poland and Lithuania, the ethnic, professional and social mix of the area began to change more rapidly. Many Eastern European guest workers are well educated, single and very competitive in their professional outlook. This leads to tensions within the New Arrival Communities. While the Portuguese workers and their families are largely un-churched and have no unifying markers apart from their nationality and language, the Eastern European workers, especially those from Poland, are as a majority loyal Catholics and congregate both socially and in religious terms around the local Catholic churches.

My own work with New Arrival Communities fell mainly in four different categories. Most of my time was taken up with advocacy and liaison. I worked closely with the Community and Diversity teams of the Southern and Eastern divisions of Lincolnshire Constabulary. We had almost weekly meetings, monitoring anything from incidents of hate crimes to road safety procedures (an important problem for the foreign communities). Another important link was the collaboration with local Citizen Advice Bureaux which are doing invaluable work with free employment advice and monitoring of gang master activities. I also met weekly with officers of both Boston Borough Council and South Holland District Council, especially in regards to Housing and Homelessness issues. In Boston, half of all homeless people are migrant workers mainly because they have been thrown out by their gang masters who are also their landlords.

When seasonal work in the fields and packing factories dries up, many workers not only lose their jobs but also their accommodation in houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) and are forced to sleep in derelict buildings, parks, old cars or in bushes along the river Witham. The only two night shelters in the county are in Lincoln and Skegness. With others, I am still very involved in trying to provide a night shelter for Boston and Spalding.

GP practices and local hospitals do not get extra funding to deal with the increase in numbers of New Arrivals; especially A&E and maternity wards experience difficulties. In addition, personnel are not trained to deal with non-English speaking patients and different cultural conditions. With the Chief Chaplain for the NHS hospitals in Lincolnshire I have been involved in a teaching programme for NHS staff in multi-culturalism and multi-faith issues.

As more and more children of migrant worker families enter the school system, an increased demand for specialized support has arisen. Because of very limited resources from the County Council, EMAS (Ethnic Minorities Achievement Services) struggle to find enough qualified personnel teaching in the children’s native languages. Funding for this vital service is woefully inadequate As a former teacher, I know this problem well. I have been privileged to help several teachers from Poland who were working in the fields around Boston to be recognized as qualified teachers by the Department of Education. The standard of education among the Eastern European workers is generally high, 50% have A-Levels or even higher degrees.

And what of the gang-masters? Some try to do the right thing, many don’t. In our capitalist society, the temptation to earn a lot of money quickly is often too great in order to apply any moral, religious or even legal principals when dealing with easily exploited people like migrant workers. I have started an open dialogue with those “labour providers” who wish to talk to me. Another part of my work was the dialogue with farmers, packing factories and supermarkets. I visited offices and factories on a regular basis and to learn about the difficulties this sector of the migrant worker dependent economy is experiencing.

And what of the Christian communities? Sadly, many Christians do not know or do not want to know about the plight of foreign workers in our midst. Exploitation and abuse of foreigners is an evil that does not only happen through gang masters and unscrupulous employers but also in the streets and shops of our towns and villages. Foreigners are being badly treated and discriminated against by our fellow citizens. Biblical teaching on loving our neighbours and honouring the stranger without reserve must not stop at the doors of Houses of Multiple Occupation, where gang masters herd migrant workers, often eight or ten to one room, charging them high rents for the “privilege“. Christian charity cannot stop when foreign workers are made homeless. Churches and Christian communities have to be centres of good practice for welcoming strangers of all nations if we want to live up to our clear biblical obligations. Often, Christians need educating and re-acquainting with Gospel values. For this very reason I seek and accept preaching engagements in churches and chapels of all denominations in Lincolnshire. I ran workshops in church halls, schools and old peoples’ homes. I gave assemblies in schools and talk to youth clubs and Deanery Synods. Most are eager to learn about the plight of those who provide by their labour in our fields the fruit and vegetables we take for granted. The Mothers Union started a series of workshops “Meet the Foreign Workers” which enabled members to actually talk to foreign workers face to face and hear first hand about their lives among us.

Many Christians are keen to pray, many are willing to lobby politicians, supermarkets and “labour providers” to help change the way our food is sourced. If we support Fair Trade with foreign countries - would it not be time to start demanding fair trade in our own?

The main thrust of the my work has always been advocacy for the “migrant” communities and awareness raising among the indigenous population. It also still supports research, teamwork and multi-disciplinary approaches to social working. My work was and still is by the nature of its constituency multi-faith and multi-lingual. It is demanding and fascinating work and I feel very blessed and grateful to have been chosen to undertake it.

I could not do my work without support from fellow Christians, indeed without the support of any people of good will - whatever their religious convictions may be. We have to transform what we believe in into tangible action for the poor and the exploited. Migrant workers and their exploiters need the social gospel of Jesus . We are called to be witnesses of the love of God in this world and be beacons of justice in a sea of exploitation.

What can faith groups do about exploitation and abuse? As I went around South Holland, Boston, Grantham and many other places in the county, talking to people about the plight of foreign workers from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and other countries who work in our fields and packing factories, I was often asked: “And what can we do to change things for the better?”

First of all we have to know the FACTS: about 4% of people living in the UK are migrant workers. They are here legally and registered with the Home Office. Their work generates every year more than 10% of our national wealth (GDP). The agricultural economy of Lincolnshire and other rural counties would collapse without our migrant workers. 10% of people in my county are guest workers and we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the UK - well below 2%!

Migrant workers often work six days a week and often double shifts, back to back. Migrant workers do NOT get preferential treatment from Council officers or charities, they do NOT jump housing queues or get food vouchers - it is illegal! We must not mix up the situation of migrant workers with that of Asylum Seekers or Refugees who are by law not allowed to work .

We have to be persistent and courageous. We have to be persistent because some people want the subject of blatant exploitation and the Dickensian conditions in our county’s economy to be swept under the carpet of political and social convenience. Some people want to downgrade the human catastrophe on our doorstep to a mere economic necessity. The cynical exploitation of human beings is not just the ugly flip-side of capitalism but a crime and an offence against both humanity and the divine! Greed is not sexy! It is a sin against God. Racism has been condemned by all churches and is incompatible with the Christian faith. Churches and State are at one in this: racism is both a crime and a sin. Faith groups need to challenge racism and exploitation wherever we encounter it. That can be in the street, at school, in the pub or at the check-out. Verbal abuse of foreign workers is as unacceptable to decent people as is deliberately spreading lies and false rumours about them. We must challenge the venom and insidiousness of overt and covert racism wherever we encounter it. Just say: “No. This is not true. You are talking nonsense. Where is your proof?”

To know the facts and to challenge racism in all its ugly forms is not enough. Everybody can smile at our foreign workers and acknowledge their existence as human beings! Everybody can say “Hello. Good morning. How are you and how is your family?”. You may even learn some words in Portuguese or Polish!

So many of us seem to think foreigners are made of glass - invisible! You could give up 2-3 hours a week to help foreign children in schools to learn English. Primary schools are crying out for extra help. Be prepared to be CRB checked! You could offer to help out at the women’s community centre or at the CAB. You could even run English conversation classes for the hard working people from Poland or Lithuania or support the work that is being done by local colleges! Local colleges have long waiting lists of migrant workers who are desperate to learn English. Why don’t you use your church hall? Ask your local priest and PCC to provide signs in church, welcoming and signposting foreign workers. I am very happy to help with that. Get a support group together. Start a crèche for mums from abroad and their toddlers. You could volunteer to be part of a group signposting foreigners to advice services, the Unions, a GP practice or translators. You could become a “buddy” for a migrant worker family. Why not shop in one of the Portuguese or Baltic food stores in town and learn about the food and drink from those countries? Have a drink in the Portuguese pub. The coffee is excellent!! You could even visit Lithuania or Estonia and boost the economy there with your tourist money!

And talking of money… Did you know that a number of banks try to make it difficult for migrant workers to open accounts with them? Because of the low wages, foreign workers are not attractive clients for banks. Some banks still demand proof address for up to three years, knowing full well that migrant workers live in Houses of Multiple occupation where the domestic bills are in the name of the landlord/gang master. Speak to your own bank manager and ask him or her how your bank is helping foreign workers to integrate.

You could do the same with estate agents who are often even more negative about foreign workers and do not want to let rooms or houses to them although those are available. You could start a Credit Union in your village or town or make the existence of CU known to immigrant workers.

Speak to your local library and demand they get books, newspapers and DVDs in the languages foreign workers use. Some libraries already actively pursue this. Perhaps you would like to sponsor a library to stock a foreign newspaper or books? Ask libraries, shops, local schools to install computers so that migrant workers (and everybody else!) can have access to the internet. E-mailing is often the only way our migrant workers can stay in touch with their families abroad.

If you are a farmer, ask your workers how much their gang master actually pays them. If his or her deductions are not reasonable, immediately inform the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA) and change to another labour provider.

You also must let your MP know what you think and how you feel. And your local councillors. Make sure you know what they think about and have done for migrant workers in your community! How did your local councillor vote when Houses of Multiple Occupation (5-15 migrant workers crammed into one small flat and paying £8o pounds a week for a room shared with 5-6 others) were discussed?? Did your local Council opt in to a stricter application of the law which would mean that all Houses of Multiple Occupation are being inspected? Many don’t - purely for economic reasons! Read your local newspapers and write letters to the editor or phone in. Don’t leave that to covert racists! Be local and vocal! Don’t be shy! Racists aren’t. Why should Christians and other good people be?

And write to the supermarkets. Tell them you and your friends will not shop there anymore if they don’t make sure that all workers get their legal wages in full. Supermarkets know where their cabbages and cauliflowers come from. They have enough sway to make sure unscrupulous gang masters are not used to supply workers to farmers during harvest or to packaging firms.

Write to packaging firms and farmers and ask whether their workers have proper inductions in Health and Safety matters, get sick and holiday pay and have official papers translated into their native languages…. Ask them how many of their workers have a contract. Did you know that only about one third of all migrant workers have a work contract? Ask which gang master they are using and how they are making sure their workers are not cheated out of their wages. There are some labour providers (or gang masters) who treat foreign workers fairly and within the law. Good labour providers need to be encouraged and exploitative ones shamed and reported to the Gangmaster Licensing Authority. Don’t be fobbed off with glib answers or glossy brochures.

One can find contact details in telephone books or on the internet or get in touch with me. And of course, don’t forget to read the Bible! Do you know how many times Jesus speaks about strangers and foreigners? Where do guests or strangers appear in the Old Testament? Find out and look at the Bible anew. Faith without action is worthless, said St. James in his Letter. Let’s prove him right.

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