Socialist Worker

‘We're not to blame’ - migrant workers speak out against racist lies

by Ken Olende
Issue No. 2433

Andrei Dudau from Romania

Andrei Dudau from Romania


In the freezing, dark winter mornings groups of migrants huddle together on Honeypot Lane in Stanmore, north west London.

Clutching warm drinks, they wait in the hope that a passing van will stop and offer casual labouring work.

Many are recent migrants from eastern Europe who only last week were the targets of the latest racist assault by the Daily Mail newspaper.

Describing the men as “dressed in jeans, woolly hats and hoodies” it attempted to present the workers as intimidating and dangerous.

It gleefully quoted Tory MP Bernard Jenkin who said the migrants were responsible for low pay.

Socialist Worker went to Honeypot Lane to uncover the truth behind the Mail’s lies.

Bogdan, one of the workers, told Socialist Worker, “I’m from Romania. Some of the group are from Poland. 

“Sometimes we get work, sometimes not. It’s no problem. We do jobs no one wants. We’re no problem.” 

They are just starting to experience the  nasty racism that says eastern Europeans are to blame for the hardship people face. For food worker Andrei Dudau it is a familiar story.

Andrei is also from Romania. He works in Poole, Dorset, and is an activist in the Unite union. He has been in Britain for ten years and has seen how attitudes have changed.

Open

“I came because I wanted to better myself. When I arrived people were more open to foreigners. 

“When I said I was from Romania people would make a joke, saying ‘Great, like Dracula’. Now they say nothing. But I see that look, ‘Oh, it’s another benefits scrounger’.”

The racism directed towards eastern Europeans has got so bad it has forced Andrei to consider leaving the country.

“I don’t want to stay in a country where I’m thought of as second class. I pay my taxes and follow the law.”

“It makes me angry when David Cameron talks about British workers’ wages being undermined. If this government cared about British workers it wouldn’t have abolished the Agricultural Wages Board.

“It wouldn’t have abolished the construction wages board. It wants the free market that blacklists construction workers. None of this is the fault of migrants. That perception is down to all the political parties and the tabloids.”

As a union activist he is frustrated that even some people on the left go along with this. 

“There are people who like some trade union ideas but not others,” he said. “If they believe this they are not trade unionists at their core.”

Agnese Kapieka from Latvia

Agnese Kapieka from Latvia


Latvian Agnese Kapeika has been working in London for four years and is horrified by the growing confidence of racists.

She said, “I was walking through the market recently when someone was handing out leaflets for Ukip. I told them I wouldn’t vote for a racist party like that.

“Most of the prejudice I’ve known is hidden. People won’t look you in the eye and say they don’t like you because you’re from Poland or Latvia.”

Now she says migrant workers feel like most people are against them.

“They just believe the lies politicians say and no one helps us. But not everyone is like that. Some will look at problems from different perspectives.

“I know a lot of younger people who support different nationalities and ideas.”

Sancho moved from Spain in 1996. He works in hotels in London and is an activist in Unite. He spoke about how tough it is to find work.

“Politicians keep saying that getting rid of migrants will solve problems. As if there would be more jobs if there were no migrants. We don’t come here for the food or the weather—but to work.

“I came from Valencia. I was unemployed and some people I knew said I could get work language teaching.

“When I got here it was harder to find a job. I started working with fast food. It was tough work and it wasn’t well paid.

“A Sri Lankan I worked with said I should try working in a hotel. And that is what I have done ever since. I’ve worked as a valet, on the switchboard and on reception.

“I’ve met good people working there from different countries and continents—most are migrants.”

Change

Michel Mielcarek is from Poznan in Poland. He said, “It wasn’t economics that made me migrate, we just wanted a change of surroundings. 

“My girlfriend—now my wife—wanted to come for a while.

“When we arrived we said we’d stay for a year or two, but we found so many things to do and places to see. We always planned to go back eventually. 

“When I arrived, coming from a different background was never an issue. But the fact that I’m a foreigner has become massively important in the past couple of years. It upsets me. I blame the stories every single day in the media looking for scapegoats.

“So many people share this view and it makes me uncomfortable.”

The likes of the Daily Mail use stories like that of the migrants looking for work in Honeypot Lane in an attempt to divide us.

They do not care about working conditions or pay but are intent on whipping up anti-immigrant hatred.

Such division among workers is dangerous. An anti-immigrant climate can help the bosses pay migrant workers less. It then becomes easier to force everyone’s wages down.

Migrants are not responsible for the driving down of wages. It is the bosses who are trying to use unregulated workers—of whatever origin—and subcontracting to pay less.

The fight against low pay and attacks on conditions can only be won, not by attacking migrants, but by workers fighting back together.

That is why Socialist Worker says that all migrants are welcome here. 

Some names have been changed

Organising in the workplace can help turn the tide

Scenes from Barbara’s cartoon to recruit workers to the union

Scenes from Barbara’s cartoon to recruit workers to the union


Migrant workers are fighting back against low pay and bullying bosses by joining unions and leading struggles.

Bosses intimidate workers into not joining a union out of fear it will lose them whatever precious employment they have. 

But Andrei explained why it is so important for migrant workers to join unions. “It was hard to be in one at first, when I could only be in Britain because I was on a contract for the company. I joined Unite but wasn’t open about it. I was a bit scared.

“But I knew colleagues who were kept as agency workers for two years or even up to five. They were doing the same job as people on contracts and I said this isn’t right.

“In my union branch I’m fighting for a pay increase for all my workers. I will not get caught up in the politicians’ game. It’s pushed by Cameron, Farage, Clegg and even Miliband.”

BJ Awosanya is an RMT rep, who works with cleaners. 

He said, “I came from Africa as a migrant. People like me want to make money to send home to our families. 

“It makes no sense to come and live on benefits. We want to develop our own countries. But we have to organise as employers try to take advantage of us.”

Sancho said that unionising can also be difficult as workers are forced to look for better paid jobs. 

“More mature and experienced people tend to join the union,” he said. “We do what we can, but it is patchy. Some of us try to resist, but if there’s a problem others just move on to another place.

“It can be difficult because young people don’t want to risk being victimised. 

“But that means they are exploited, some stop working in hotels after two or three years because they are exhausted.

“Barbara Pokryszka who is a Unite rep originally from Poland has worked out a cartoon history about workers like us which we use to recruit.

“We have some theatre based on it to recruit people too. We hope to launch that in January. We need victories to get people to join the union. We do what we can.”


The myths remain the same

Anti-racist protester

Anti-racist protester (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Many migrants feel that the racist attitudes they face today are similar to when they first arrived up to two decades ago. 

Lies that migrants crowd housing and hospital waiting lists recur the most.

“Some things stay the same,” Sancho said. “When I first arrived in 1996 I heard people say that migrants were given a house straight away.”

Andrei added, “When people say immigrants are a burden on the NHS they aren’t thinking of Romanian or Indian doctors or nurses who are keeping it going. Problems in the health service are down to the government not migrants.”

Yet what migrants are supposed to be guilty of also constantly changes. Sometimes they are blamed for taking jobs, sometimes for living on benefits. Sometimes for coming to stay. 

Agnese said, “It was funny because the bosses in the warehouse where I worked said they liked migrants because they don’t stay. And that’s true. 

“Most workers earn some money and go back.”

She pointed out that, “To rent places to live you need references—but migrants don’t have those from Britain. They say people bring their families here to use the services, but most people I worked with couldn’t do that. 

“How can you look after children when you never know when you’ll be working?”


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