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

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

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

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

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


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

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