Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/416/4738
A struggle for survival
Interview with Polish worker in Britain
IN MAY 2004 ten countries joined the European Union - including Poland, Latvia and the Czech Republic. The British and Irish governments were the only European governments to impose no restrictions on the right of workers from the new states to seek work in their countries.
The New Labour government's public estimate was that around 13,000 workers a year would arrive in Britain as a result. In fact 16,000 a month have arrived to search for work in Britain.
It wasn't international solidarity, or desire to help the 'accession states' that made New Labour open the doors to these countries' workers - this move was designed to lower labour costs and so increase the major corporations' profits.
As The Economist argued in its 2002 survey of migration: "The gap between labour's rewards in the poor and the rich countries, even for something as menial as clearing tables, dwarfs the gap between the prices of traded goods from different parts of the world. The potential gains [to capitalist's profits] from liberalising migration therefore dwarf those from removing barriers to world trade."
On arrival in Britain, workers' from Eastern Europe often struggle for survival in low-paid, insecure work. The British trade union movement urgently needs to help East European workers get organised and take up a fight for their rights. That is the only way to prevent big business succeeding in lowering wages and undermining all workers' rights in a 'race to the bottom'!
J is one of many workers who arrived in Britain since 2004. This interview gives a glimpse of her experiences of living and working in Britain (names have been changed as J is taking legal action against her previous employer).
Why did you come to Britain?
I'D SPENT two months in Poland trying to find a job. Poland officially has 18% unemployment but the real figure is probably over 20% because a lot of unemployment is hidden. For young people, it is impossible to find a job. When I was found by a company recruiting people to work as a live-in carer in Britain, I accepted.
I was paid about £400 a week as a live-in carer. £200 is a good month's salary in Poland. I had a nine-month contract with a guaranteed salary and was given training.
I enjoyed my first week's work caring for a woman in W. It was the week of New Year. I thought England was very beautiful, especially the countryside. The only inconvenience was that I couldn't take part in any celebrations on New Year's Eve. I had to go to bed early because my client woke at 6 am each day. Only then did I start to think about my new profession's restrictions.
Live-in carers work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If your client wakes up at night you have to wake up. If your client watches TV you watch it with your client. If your client watches cricket and you have no idea why the people in white are throwing the ball, you still have to watch!
What went wrong?
I really enjoyed the first week but later, I was asked to replace a carer who'd returned to South Africa because of family problems, just for a few days. But I was asked to stay longer because my client liked me. I stayed two months.
Then one day I had a call from the agency that employed me, saying I had ten minutes to get my things and get out of the house. I was shocked; I thought at first I'd unwittingly committed some crime. I asked why. I was told the reasons would be explained if I leave the house immediately.
I asked where I should go. They said that was my business and I'd receive a call after I left the house. However, there was the slight detail that I hadn't been paid for the week I'd just worked so I'd no money to go anywhere.
What did you do?
I LEFT the house while the situation was clarified; after all they promised to explain why this had happened. I was in the middle of my fixed-term contract so they didn't have the right to break it without giving me notices and warnings. I'd never received any notices, warning or complaints but in mid-contract I was kicked out on the streets.
I'd no friends but I called another carer and stayed at her house. I still hadn't been given an explanation. My English then wasn't as good as it is now. I didn't understand everything said to me on the phone. So I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) who tried to call my agency to see what was happening.
The agency employs 400 administrative staff but nobody could answer my query. They were all on holiday, at lunch, ill, sick or absent! After four days the agency told me to go to the company HQ where I'd receive an explanation.
I hadn't been paid so couldn't afford to go there; I asked again for an explanation. After a week of waiting I went to the CAB again who advised me to write a statement and a warning letter before going to court. I did so.
After that I decided to go to London; without money or accommodation, I didn't know anybody. I found some distant relatives who let me stay in London.
Eighteen days after the incident I finally received a letter from the company making very serious allegations about how I was supposed to have mistreated my client. There was also an invitation to go to the company HQ. So I went.
I was told that everything was alright, there was no need to worry, I can start work again. They proposed that I just continued my contract and forgot about being accused of mistreating my client and being kicked out on the street.
I wasn't prepared to do that. I found out later that the previous carer returned suddenly from South Africa. So I had to be replaced quickly but I still had a contract. I think my agency thought it was easier just to order me to get out. They thought I couldn't really argue for my rights so they didn't prepare the dismissal properly.
I'm determined to fight this. I had difficulties bringing the case before the court in summer because I didn't have enough money. Now it's going before the court and we shall see.
You kept on living and working in London. What was it like?
IT'S A horror. Many of us are well-educated, but without language you can't get a better job so you can't pay for language courses. It's a vicious circle. If you work for £4 or £5 an hour to pay rent and other basic expenses you need to work 20 hours a day.
I have the impression people are trying to cheat you. Previously I worked full-time. I became very ill because I worked too much. Then one day I was taken to hospital because I fell unconscious on my way to work.
The employer managed to find a rule that I shouldn't be paid for this day! Every time, if the employer thinks you won't claim something you're entitled to, he won't pay it to you.
Our wages are getting lower. I know many builders from Eastern Europe who say that four years ago they earned over £100 a day. Now they earn £80, one-third less than before, because a lot of people arrived and people are fighting for the work.
For women it's even worse. Men from Eastern Europe can earn £7, £8 or £10 an hour. We have to work as cleaners and waitresses and earn less. Sometimes I struggle with the temptation to write a book "Eastern Eastenders" because everyday you see with your own eyes the Darwinian struggle for survival. Without struggling you can't survive in London.
What should socialists be fighting for to assist you?
EDUCATION, EDUCATION, education. Eastern Europeans here live in enclaves. We need language courses and courses on how to live in England. Your first week in London, you don't know the language and have difficulties even buying a tube ticket.
I know people who have lived here for five years but don't know how to get a national insurance number or their basic rights. They don't know how to join a trade union. People must be taught about their rights. We need leaflets in Russian and Polish on our rights, including how to join a union.
Eastern Europeans are mainly the working class here. Everyone has problems with employers but I'm the only person who did something about it because I wasn't afraid to lose my job and accommodation. I was too angry to be afraid.
Normally people don't know where to go or what to do. If I'd known the Socialist Party on 1 March this year, you would have contacted a trade union that organised carers and this conflict could have been solved on 2 March. Now it's November and I'm still owed money from my employer.
East Europeans need back-up and organisation to help us to get organised. We are cheap meat and we need someone radical to fight for us.
How Gama workers beat exploiting bosses
AT LAST weekend's Socialism 2005, the excellent speakers at the main rally were supplemented by some great film footage.
One film showed how victories can be achieved by a determined campaign against the super-exploitation of migrant workers.
Gama, a huge multinational, had been invited to fill extremely lucrative government contracts in southern Ireland and had brought 1,000 Turkish workers into that country to do the work.
For four years, these bosses only paid these workers the equivalent of £1.50 an hour.
Following a Socialist Party campaign, which pressured the Irish government into launching an investigation, it was discovered that the bulk of the workers' wages was being siphoned off into bank accounts in the Netherlands.
The workers, who went on strike for their rights, have now claimed their wages and Gama workers are now paid at trade union rates and conditions.
The film footage showed Socialist Party TD (Irish MP) Joe Higgins speaking in Ireland's parliament, the Dail where, in very amusing fashion, he demolished the capitalist government's arguments.
Joe was one of the speakers at the rally, where he explained that the neo-liberal offensive that relentlessly squeezed working people's living standards and working conditions was seen at its sharpest in the exploitation of migrant labour. It showed clearly what EU expansion was all about.
But the example of the Gama workers showed that the solution to the bosses' attacks was to win the same terms and conditions for migrant workers.
In The Socialist 17 November 2005: