A migrant worker scandal

There is much noise in the papers about Michael Howard’s recent comments on immigration. One of the biggest myths surrounding this issue is that of the ‘easy life’, that people choose to come to the UK for a freeloading comfy existence when in fact the vast majority of people who head to the British Isles do so on the promise of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

They don’t always find the promises are kept however.

Poet George Szirtes has been helping one such worker:

This man answered an advertisement in a Hungarian newspaper. He is in his fifties, a redundant steelworker. His son, also a steelworker, is similarly redundant. The steelworks have shut. They have worked where they could abroad for very low wages. This particular advertisement promised a job and handsome wages at a production-line factory in our area. There was a charge for accommodation – a very heavy exploitative charge, it turned out, £700 more per month than the actual landlord was charging the five workers living there. There was also something that looked like a one-off commission of £55. Except, when he arrived in early November, it turned out to be not a one-off but a weekly charge. He was to be paid by the agency not by the company. He has no problem with the company: he likes them and they seem to like him. The agency however either stonewall or threaten. One employee – the interpreter – was kicked out immediately he raised the subject. There may or may not be thugs around to enforce order. He thinks there are.

The core of the problem is this. The wages were just about over the national minimum wage to start with but with the deductions our man was earning £37 a week, and while this went up later to about £50, it wasn’t anything to live on. He had lost serious weight over the two months.

The solicitor, a very nice and capable young woman, agreed that this was wrong. Under industrial tribunal rules he would be able to get back the weekly £55 he had been paying for the last two months. The catch is that he could be sacked with a week’s notice and kicked out of his accommodation at four weeks notice. In fact the whole group of migrant workers could be sacked on the spot, because, he had learned, another 400 Hungarian workers were on the way to take their place.

The ex-steelworker was going to go local BBC TV and expose the affair (which was where I was called in) but he would only do so if he was given some security in the form of money or accommodation, which is not the way the BBC works. Hence no interview. Hence the visit to the solicitor.

He is, in effect, stuck and embittered. His promised overtime bonus (he worked an extra eight hours so he would have spending money for Christmas) never materialised. He broke down in tears at this point. He didn’t even have the money to get home to Hungary.

Isn’t there a law against this? The agency is British not Hungarian by the way.

Aren’t there organisations which help such people?

Are there trade unions that believe workers rights also apply to obviously non-unionised migrant workers and are prepared to stick up for an exploited worker?

Aren’t there journalists who think this sort of thing is worth investigating (and not only when ‘gang masters’ were the buzz word after the tragic deaths of the cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay)?

If anyone thinks they can help in anyway please get in touch via email and I will pass on any suggestions to the man via George.

Update: Unions are indeed working in this area and the TUC press department have been in touch to point out a few resources.

Here is a report on an undercover TUC investigation of agencies.

Here is a page of links and resources on migrant workers rights from the TUC which is avaliable in several languages.