Who's Exploiting Whom?

The Big Issue 19-02-1992 – Derived from an Observer news feature

When young migrants arrive in the United Kingdom seeking work and perhaps claiming to be political refugees, are they exploiting their new hosts or do they become the victims of goverment collusion with employers seeking cheap labour?

By Christopher Long

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Tanija had committed the first criminal offence of her life before she had spent half an hour on British soil.

She arrived at Heathrow from Yugoslavia in June 1990, a small, dark-haired, shy but very friendly 23 year-old. It was the first time she had been anywhere away from home and she knew nobody here except the name and address of a Mrs Collins in Dollis Hill, north London and the telephone number of a hotel near Gloucester Road, much frequented by Yugoslavs. In her bag was 95 pounds Sterling and in her passport a British immigration stamp permitting her to enter the UK for six months but which forbade her to work.

"I felt terrible," she says. 'The system made me a liar before I had even collected my luggage. I told them I was going to be an au pair but I knew I would never go there. I met some Italians on the tube to Gloucetser Road but I felt like a criminal. There were other Yugoslavs who I didn't know nearby and I knew they had cheated the system too. The Italians can do what they like – they can work and nobody asks them why they're here.

"The system turned me into a criminal," says waitress Tanija.

"I had a coffee and a pizza with them near Gloucester Road and it cost me nearly five pounds. I was terrified. My suitcase was too big and I didn't know how far I would have to carry it to the hotel. I just wanted to cry... I was crying but with no tears.

"I was terrified. My suitcase was too big and I didn't know how far I would have to carry it to the hotel. I just wanted to cry. I was crying; but with no tears."

Outside the hotel passing policemen terrified her too. She was sure they knew she was an illegal immigrant. Some Turkish boys offered her a room for forty pounds a week and when she refused they tried to borrow some money. By the time she went to sleep that night she had already spent nearly twenty pounds of her precious 'hard currency', given to her by her brother and her mother – representing two month's salary at black market rates in Yugoslavia. And that didn't include the forty pounds deposit for three nights at the hotel.

"I knew my money would only last about three days because the hotel was about twenty-five pounds a night. I even got my period a week early – no please don't write that down! – and the girl in the next room sold me what I needed for two pounds."

A few weeks later her country was at war. She spent weeks and months in terror, glued to television and certain that her brother would be called up and killed at the front and that her home and family would be destroyed.

"I pray that my parents will never know how I was feeling then. When I rang them they said I should stay away. You can't imagine what it feels like. If they knew how hard it was for me here, they would never have said that... well, perhaps... I don't know..."

In the same weeks and months, Tanija, who read economics at university – "marxist economics of course!" – learnt a few lessons in the harsh realities of a consumer society. She says that here she works very, very hard for little reward by British standards and knows that she is exploited every day by employers who know perfectly well that she's not a legal worker, cannot complain and can be replaced within hours.

The only thing that really depresses her is that waiters, waitresses and shop assistants are treated like rubbish in the UK. Even the employers, let alone the customers, seldom realise that most are graduates – lawyers, doctors, journalists, architects... "Ask the next foreign waitress you meet what her qualification is. You might be surprised."

But why come to a 'recessed' Britain in the first place?

"People always ask that. They never understand. I love my country, but if you haven't lived there you'll never know how restricting it is. Getting a job is very, very difficult. Without a job you have to live at home and even if you are married you often still have to live with your family, or his. Our money is worth very little in our country and it's nothing at all in West European countries. There's a whole system which affects every part of your life and even if it's very hard here, at least there is freedom and exitement. I can't explain it properly but Yugoslvia isn't what the tourists see..."

But, as an illegal worker, is she 'exploiting' or 'exploited'?

'Have you ever seen an East European begging or sleeping on the streets? We find work even if it's badly paid. We go into shops and restaurants and ask for work. We tell our friends when we are leaving a job so they can have it.'

'I think we get work because we work hard. We look smart and we can't afford to be ill. I was always surprised that people were begging in the streets. You can't see that in my country. Even when I had only three or four pounds in my pocket I never thought I would live on the streets – never!'

'At the beginning I was always frightened the police would catch me and I heard that the immigration were searching in restaurants to find illegal workers. Nobody ever asked me what I was doing.'

'Sometimes, when things were bad, I wanted to ring Mrs Collins and go there, but I thought she must be very angry and that she would report me.'

At a small shop in King's Road, Chelsea, she was making 145 pounds Sterling for a 60-hour week with no holiday or sickness entitlement. She was not sure whether the deductions made against her illegally acquired social security number were passed on to the authorities.

She has now returned to Yugoslavia. But it will be difficult to get back to London. No-one queried why she had over-stayed when she left through Heathrow.

See Economic Migrants

Some names of individuals in this article were changed in order to protect their identities.

© (1992) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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Christopher Long

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