TUC REPORTS ‘SYSTEMATIC EXPLOITATION’ – of Polish and Lithuanian migrants

Polish migrants gave a press conference with the TGWU trade union at the House of Commons in December 2005 about gangmasters’
Polish migrants gave a press conference with the TGWU trade union at the House of Commons in December 2005 about gangmasters’

A NEW TUC study just published has revealed ‘systematic exploitation’ of migrant workers in Britain.

The TUC said: ‘Thousands of Polish and Lithuanian workers are being exploited at work in the UK.

‘Since 2004 when 10 new states joined the EU, more than 475,000 Polish and Lithuanian workers have come to work in the UK.

‘This study by Compas, a research unit based at Oxford University, shows that most had found insecure and poorly paid employment, with more than half of those surveyed encountering problems at work.

‘A quarter of the workers in the study reported having no written contract (a figure which rose to nearly a third amongst agency workers) and over a quarter had faced problems with payment – including not being paid for hours worked, discrepancies between pay and payslips, unauthorised deductions and errors in pay calculation.

‘Ten times as many migrants as indigenous workers were paid less than the minimum wage.

‘The study also uncovers that migration has re-introduced the “tied cottage’’ – where employers provide accommodation (at a cost) and use it to increase their control over migrant workers.

‘Nearly a third of the workers in the report were living in accommodation provided by their employer, and as a result described excessive hours (due to their employment being linked to where they lived) and poor living conditions.’

The TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber commented: ‘This study reveals systematic abuse of migrant workers which is tantamount to modern-day slavery.

‘Too many unscrupulous bosses are getting rich by exploiting migrant workers and the full force of the law should be used against those profiting from such appalling ill treatment.

‘Everyone should be treated fairly and with dignity and respect at work, wherever they come from.’

Barber maintained that: ‘Unions are working hard to recruit migrant workers to protect them from rogue employers who seek to deny their workers a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

‘It’s clear migrant workers need help to secure their rights.

‘By working with advice agencies and other similar organisations, unions can help ensure that migrant workers get the support and protection they are entitled to.’

The TUC announced it was also publishing ‘Living and working in the UK: Your rights’, a guide written with the Citizens Advice Bureau, with migrants from Eastern Europe in mind.

‘Half the guide gives useful advice and tips for new arrivals on living in the UK, the remainder concentrates on issues that might cause problems at work,’ the TUC said.

The TUC also said it has set up a ‘Commission on Vulnerable Employment to investigate the extent of workplace exploitation in the UK.’

The TUC surveyed 508 Polish and Lithuanian workers who requested a TUC leaflet on their rights.

According to the report all of the most complained-about employers were making a profit – ‘one of them of over £45 million a year’.

The report added that ‘each of these companies was able to pay their highest paid director between £100,000 and over £600,000 a year.’

The report said that ‘few migrants had any contact with institutions outside of work’, and that ‘only three per cent had joined a union in Britain but another 54 per cent said they would be interested in joining a union.’

The introduction said: ‘After May 2004 there were many reports of exploitation and abuses of migrants from the new member states who were working perfectly legally, and before that there were reports of serious abuses of Portuguese and Greek nationals.’

Twelve respondents sent in letters describing experiences or asking questions, and significant numbers supplemented their answers with detailed comments and remarks in response to particular questions.

The TUC said that ‘89 per cent’ of the survey respondents had entered Britain after EU Enlargement (May 1, 2004).

Key sectors of employment were manufacturing (31.9 per cent), hospitality (23.8 per cent), transportation, storage and communication (10.6 per cent) and health and social work (10 per cent).

However, the TUC added: ‘Many of those working in manufacturing were working in food processing and packaging i.e. in agriculture related manufacturing.’

‘Over one fifth of our respondents were working for an agency rather than directly for an employer, however they were not evenly distributed and sector seems of great importance here.’

The report said: ‘Forty six workers reported working an average of 60 hours a week or more.’

The report continued: ‘The majority of respondents were working for very low wages with only 15 of those who reported their wages (484) earning over £10 an hour.’

It added: ‘Of those who completed the survey before October 2005, 11 per cent (51) reported earning rates which put them below the minimum £4.85.

‘Of those who completed the survey after the minimum wage rate increased to £5.05, 14 per cent (6) were earning below the minimum wage. . .

‘Some were earning significantly below the minimum wage, with one person reporting earnings of £1.19 an hour.’

The report notes: ‘Accommodation is the only benefit in kind that can count towards the calculation of the minimum wage, and at the time when most people completed the survey this was set at £3.75 per day (£26.35 a week) rising to £3.90 per day (£27.30 a week) in October 2005.’

But the report says: ‘Given the limitations of our data we can only tentatively suggest that it is unlikely that the proportion of those earning below the minimum wage can be explained by the accommodation offset’.

It adds: ‘Hospitality was quite clearly the sector where most NMW infractions were reported.’

The TUC’s questionnaire asked respondents if they had encountered problems with their employer (or agency).

Fifty-two per cent (263) said they had problems either in the past or currently.

The report goes on: ‘Nearly a quarter of our respondents (115) reported that they had no written contract rising to nearly one third of those who were working for an agency rather than direct for an employer, but only a small minority referred to this specifically as a problem (26).

‘This supports other research which has found that workers in insecure, low paid work, can regard contracts as a disadvantage, “tying” them to an employer, and making it harder to leave, which they may feel is one of the only responses open to them when faced with poor working conditions, low wages etc (Anderson et al 2006).’

One respondent said: ‘The agency offered me a very good contract but not everything that was in the contract came true, worse pay, unpaid breaks, and many people in the same accommodation for which they take high rent.’

Another said the ‘employer threw me out of work when I asked for registration and contract, as well as minimum wage’.

The report said that ‘The most common type of problem reported related to pay, with over one in four reporting such issues.

‘Most of these were issues associated with lack of payment.’

One worker said: ‘My first job was illegal and I was unaware of this. My employer didn’t give me payslips, no contract, no tax, and paid by cash. I worked in a bakery 10 hours a day. I was paid £160 per week for six days a week’.

There were also complaints about the retention of passports and identity documents, the report says.

The TUC concludes: ‘This survey provides evidence that the newly arrived Polish and Lithuanian workers are interested in joining trades unions, and indeed to be active in trades unions, for their own protection, and to contribute to the struggles of all workers in the UK labour market.

‘It also suggests that their exploitation is not necessary for the operation of the British economy, and that many of them are reluctant to accept that exploitation as their lot.

‘This combination of factors presents an opportunity for unions to wield their “sword of justice”, and in the process win the allegiance of a new generation of activists.’