Migrants: Britain's hidden labour army

Issue section: 

The deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in 2004 exposed the appalling working conditions of thousands of migrants in Britain. Hsiao-Hung Pai, author of a new book, Chinese Whispers, describes her quest to tell the stories of such workers and why going undercover was the only way to get at the truth.

Xiao Fan came to say goodbye. He had decided to return home, to Tianjin in north China. "I can't live a life like this any longer, hiding myself in the kitchen every day, fearing the next immigration raid. When it's so hard to earn even a pittance, it leaves you no dignity. What is the point? I've had enough."

He looked at a photo of his son, which he showed me. "When I left home, he was only eight. Now he's taller than me!" Seven years in Britain have earned him an apartment in his city, which he couldn't have afforded without coming to work in the dark kitchens here. He has also been able to help his sister with her medical treatment. Healthcare is not for everyone in China today. "I've done it for my family. I have no regrets."

When I waved Xiao Fan farewell at the station and saw how relaxed he finally was, I remember that morning when he called me four years ago. I could hear anxiety in his voice. It was the morning after the sea swept away 23 young lives at Morecambe Bay. "Ah Hui is dead. He's dead. I can't believe it. He's dead." Ah Hui was his colleague. They spent day and night working together in the dingy kitchen of a south London Chinese takeaway before Ah Hui decided to move to a job at Morecambe Bay to improve his income.

"I didn't know lives could be lost so easily working in this country," Xiao Fan said. Xiao Fan imagined himself having the same destiny as Ah Hui - he knew that he too could have been there that night. For me, like Xiao Fan, the tragedies at Morecambe Bay and Dover were not only saddening stories on the TV screen. It was what happened all around me, and it had a personal impact. I saw people losing their friends and colleagues; losing their parents and their only breadwinners. While multinational corporations globalise their exploitation of workers, workers are pushed to risk their lives crossing borders and trying to earn a living for their families. The death of workers for corporate profits is a direct testimony to the barbarism of the system under which we live.

These tragedies motivated me to begin a fact finding journey. I set out to listen to the stories of Chinese migrants and document their working lives. In doing so, I followed many people's lives, some of them from when they arrived in Britain to when they decided to return home.

I knew that gaining access to a workplace could be very difficult, especially when workers have so much to fear: the possibility of their identity being revealed, of losing their job or being arrested and deported.

The lack of access, in the case of mainstream journalists, can lead them to reinforce prejudices. A team of cockle pickers once told me that a journalist from a local newspaper in Liverpool knocked on their door soon after the Morecambe Bay tragedy. He wanted hot news, but he didn't know how to interact with them. He left without talking. The next day, the cockle pickers were shocked to hear that their house had been named "House of Horror" in the newspaper headline.

On one occasion I was setting up interviews with the help of a Chinese chef. He said to me, "How can you really know about their lives if you don't live it yourself? It's not something you can understand in an interview or two."

The idea of actually spending a few days with my interviewees also came up in the process. Some people challenged me about the idea of undercover work and subterfuge. But didn't veteran undercover reporter Gunter Wallraff say that sometimes we need to use deception to expose social deception?

Over the following two years I went undercover in a variety of workplaces - in a food processing factory in Suffolk; a book packaging factory in Birmingham; on a leek farm in Northamptonshire; as a domestic worker in a private household in London; as a dim sum trolley pusher in London's Chinatown; and as a receptionist in a brothel in Burnley. Living and working alongside the workers, I was then able to make realistic observations about their working life and see the structure and patterns of recruitment and the below-minimum working conditions in the informal economy. It allowed me to witness evidence of systematic abuse of these migrant workers' rights.

It is precisely the systematic nature of the exploitation that makes it so horrific. Britain maintains the illegality of this hidden workforce, and in doing so benefits from the misery of the informal economy. By denying people's right to work and keeping them underground, Britain gives the green light to corporate manslaughter, slave wages and forced labour. Zhang Guo-Hua wouldn't have been worked to death if he had been given the right to work. Lin Yun and Ah Hua wouldn't have been physically attacked if they were allowed to enter Britain in a legitimate way. Xiao Fen wouldn't have ended up working in the sex trade if she was permitted to work and not paid a third less than the national minimum wage working in a restaurant kitchen.

In 21st century Britain workers are not entitled to basic protection and cannot be guaranteed minimum standards of working conditions because they are without documents. Currently, there are between 700,000 and 1 million people in Britain who are leading this ghost-like existence. Within the European Union there are 5.5 million undocumented people filling labour shortages without any entitlement to rights.

I wanted to demonstrate what this means through telling the workers' own stories. They are speaking for themselves. My book, Chinese Whispers, is narrated from their voices. It is them talking about their struggle: their once in a lifetime decision to migrate for work; their journey in Britain; moved on from job to job to fill the need for temporary seasonal labour; the way they cope with daily exploitation, institutional racism, social exclusion and marginalisation in a country that needs them but doesn't recognise their rights.

Having documented their struggle, I argue that we need to move beyond the current migration debate about numbers and their effects. It's time to ask: what is Britain doing for the undocumented as workers and as human beings? What should Britain do in order to protect and uphold the rights of workers, regardless of their immigration status?

We need to ask these questions: When immigration controls are weakening the labour movement and dividing Britain's workforce, what are our unions doing? What do they say and do about immigration controls? Are they taking part in the fight against the recent immigration raids that are putting undocumented workers out of work and making them homeless and destitute? Are our unions doing next to nothing?

We need to argue for the regularisation of workers' status. But we need to do it critically. What kind of programme are we backing? We should be very suspicious of regularisation programmes whose criteria exclude certain groups of undocumented migrants. We need to question programmes that give employers more power to determine workers' status and their future working life.

Fundamentally, we need to argue that the right to work across borders is a human right not to be bargained with or compromised.

Chinese Whispers is out this month and published by Fig Tree. It is available from Bookmarks.