“I hate white vans,” said Alek. Around 5am every day, groups of young men and women huddle on street corners in towns across Britain. There they wait for a white van or minibus.
With luck, in this land of casual working, it will transport them to a local vegetable and fruit packing plant or to farms and factories.
Socialist Worker spoke to migrant workers from Poland and Bulgaria in Hampshire and Kent about the conditions they face.
According to Alek, “The gangmaster charged me £6 a day for transport. When he tried to charge me more, he didn’t give me any explanation. I refused to pay more. Then he backed down and accepted £6. There are no rules.”
The workers are supplied by gangmasters or “mediators” who sometimes flout minimum wage legislation by deducting inflated sums for housing and transport directly from pay.
At worst, it is a modern day version of bonded labour. No pay slips, deductions for accommodation, “charging” vulnerable people large sums in eastern Europe for the privilege of coming to be exploited on the farms and factories of England.
Conditions have returned to the 19th century. People work 13-hour shifts seven days a week, while living in grossly overcrowded houses. Workers are “tied” to the job.
Workers say they are being paid less than they expected, that they have to wait weeks to get paid, that the accommodation is expensive, that they had paid too much to get there and that the management are unduly profiting from them.
Some workers complain they were shown misleading pictures of “beautiful accommodation” that never appeared. “Half my bed had springs poking out,” one said.
Welcome to the rural idyll of southern England.
Many of the workers are here legally. It should entitle them to basic rights like the minimum wage. But frequently it doesn’t.
Companies use gangmasters to supply cheap labour in agriculture and food processing.
These gangmasters get rich off vulnerable migrant workers, some of whom are forced to work illegally.
The Gangmasters (Licensing) Act of 2004 set up the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, after the Morecambe Bay tragedy where 23 migrant workers died.
While the authority has shut some agencies down, there are loopholes in the licensing process. Many gangmasters and agencies are still violating licensing standards and breaking the law.
The neoliberal dream of “flexible labour markets” is for a pool of workers that are instantly available – but also instantly sackable.
Hiding behind the gangmasters stand the big corporations who rely on this cheap labour to produce their profits.
Paul paid £500 for a seasonal work visa. As soon as it expired, he continued to do the job, packing mushrooms and cabbages – but this time on half the wages.
Every time the police came, he had to flee into the woods along with all the other undocumented workers.
He said, “At one place I was working at, we stayed overnight on the floor. They said we were security guards during the night and workers during the day. We only got paid for the day shift.”
In Kent 12 workers live in a semi-derelict five-room flat with no door. Each pays £50 a week for rent – it is deducted from their wages.
Alek had to pay £600 for a visa to come to Britain, and was briefly employed picking strawberries. He was told he would receive £2 per box.
But, he says, “The boss said because we were such hard workers and were picking so quickly, the price of a box was reduced to 50p. It took ages to fill a box. I became ill from pushing so hard just to make enough money to survive.”
Ivan is here on a student visa. He had to pay £1,000 to get here – £600 for an English language school he never went to and the rest for the travel agency’s service charge.
He says he had to choose a school that does not require attendance because he has to work 50 hours per week in order to pay the tuition, and to pay back the money he borrowed.
Georgi told Socialist Worker, “We were not given any contract. No one told me what my job would be until I was sent into the factory.
“I couldn’t ask too much because I didn’t speak that much English when I had just arrived.
“The gangmaster asked me to pay £4 for an application form. He didn’t want me to register with the home office. So, I remained unregistered.
“I was paid £3 per hour in cash. When I went to the gangmaster’s house to ask him for the two weeks’ wages he owed me, he threatened me with the police.”
Where people are paid by cheques, the workers have to cash them. But they don’t have bank accounts so they have to pay yet another deduction.
Most people in the area they work in welcome the migrants.
Alek said, “There is nothing but bad jobs for every worker round here, but the local people are very good. The shops have started getting Polish newspapers and food.”
People don’t just put up with their conditions. According to Peter, “It’s slavery. They shit on you. One place kicked me out because I refused to handle their shit.
“In the job I have now, the money is bad. We wait days to have work and even longer to get paid. It is like a prison – perhaps we will strike.”
Romich, who is in his 40s, is angry. He said, “It is hard for Polish people here if you don’t have a job. You are on the streets without accommodation and no money for food. I have earned just £23.
“But I must pay £45 a week to live in a box with four other people. Perhaps I earn £150 in a week, but I have to pay for food, accommodation, tax, everything.
“Maybe I have £40 left for six days’ work. It’s not good.
“We are here legally and we should have rights – we just have to find ways to get them. Part of it is just not being scared.
“It’s harder for the people who end up owing money or who are here illegally. They are terrified of getting sacked.
“We are in a union and we complain a lot. We don’t pay for transport to work. We do get paid on time every week now. It’s not much, but it’s better than many.”