"If you don't know who employs you, you can lose your job at any time," said a Polish hotel worker. "I feel this insecurity about my future in England. There are no rules here."
The insecurity is well founded. "During the eight months I worked I never knew whether I'd get paid, but I also had no idea who I was really working for and to whom I should complain when I'm not paid," said another Polish worker living in the south of England.
Companies use labour providers who subcontract to smaller agencies set up to act as front shops. These can then be folded up at any minute to avoid inspection. When wages are left unpaid, the agencies simply lay the blame with their parent companies.
The underground nature of this chain of businesses is such that several employees told me that they were not aware who they actually worked for until months after starting their jobs. Workers regularly reported having no idea which company they worked for, or to whom to direct complaints.
Labour providers are some of the most ruthless agents of exploitation that migrant workers encounter as they enter the British labour market. For those without language skills and with few social resources, employment agencies (or individual recruiters) are often the first point of contact and the only way through which migrant workers gain access to local jobs. There is no licensing requirement for such agencies in Britain.
The Gangmaster Licensing Act that came into effect last October only covers labour providers in certain sectors (fresh food produce and the packaging industry, shellfish gathering, agriculture and horticulture). Apart from the limited scope, many of those covered under the act aren't licensed, and those that are often fail to meet licensing standards.
In many cases migrant agency workers do not receive the minimum wage, and some are not paid at all. Many are subject to illegal charging of fees to register with the agencies to find work or when they want to change their status to permanent staff. They also suffer random wage deductions, overcrowded accommodation, bullying and intimidation by management and no health and safety training or assessment in the workplace.
The hotel sector is an example. One Polish worker, who was sent to work full time at a major hotel chain, told me that other than not being given a contract, sick pay or holiday pay, non-payment of wages was common. "I wasn't paid three times. My friend got paid £60 for ten days work and the company just ignored his complaint."
A 48 year old worker from Zimbabwe, who did a cleaning job in one hotel in the north of England for six months, said her agency still owes her £700 wages. "There was no chance of getting it back," she said. "They just told me to go away." She has five children to support at home.
A Polish worker in London described his experience working for one of the agencies. "We were paying up to £10 per day for transport, deducted from our wages," he said. "They once charged me £20 because they said I forgot to return the uniform."
Some workers in different parts of the country reported paying fines as high as £35, deducted as "transport" on their wage slips. Another way employers rip off migrant workers is to issue them cheques when the company knows that they don't have bank accounts. One Czech worker was extremely distressed as he had no bank account and couldn't cash his earnings.
One agency uses workers' immigration status to avoid paying wages. A South African worker was sent to work as a hotel car park attendant. He was not paid, and was told that he did not have the proper ID. Any complaints, he was warned, would result in him being reported to the Home Office.
One ex-agency manager told me of his disgust at how the agency "tricked cash out of foreign workers", but had to compromise his conscience and stay in the job to support his family until finally resigning last year.
"The hotels know too well about the agency's practices," he said, "They choose to ignore it." Agencies' abuses in the hotel industry are prevalent throughout the hospitality sector. Migrant workers bear the brunt.
It's a Free World, the new film by director Ken Loach, tackles the scandal of migrant labour abuse. It will be shown on Channel 4 this month, and is reviewed in this issue.