BY Felicity Lawrence, Consumer Affairs Correspondent
The Guardian, United Kingdom; Mar 09, 2004
Tens of thousands of migrant Ukrainian workers in the UK are being exposed
to routine exploitation even when they have permits to work here. Their
plight is exposed in a report published by the TUC today, which includes
extensive interviews with workers in agriculture, food processing, catering
and construction. [TUC-Trade Union Congress]
The report reveals that they are often paid less than half what British
workers are paid for the same jobs. They also suffer frequent industrial
injuries and live in overcrowded conditions. Many have come to the UK
legitimately on government schemes for seasonal agricultural workers (SAWS)
or for specific sectors needing unskilled labour (SBS), but find the
conditions so harsh that they are driven into the black economy in London.
"Gone West - The Harsh Reality of Ukrainians at Work in the UK," documents
their stories. Stepan Shakhno, a Ukrainian student and chairman of the
European Youth Parliament in west Ukraine, spent several months last summer
collecting evidence from Ukrainians for the TUC report.
"They often live in complete wretchedness and with a constant fear of
deportation. When they do find work, they are usually treated much worse
than they would ever be at home," he says.
Vasyl's case is typical. He paid $1,000 in bribes in the Ukraine to get onto
the SAWS scheme. When he arrived to work on a strawberry farm, he was told
he would be paid pounds 2 for every box he filled. But when managers found
he and his fellow Ukrainians worked hard, they cut the rate to 50p per box.
The hours were long and of ten involved working all day in the rain. "Many
people got ill, but of course they couldn't stop working. We were completely
dependent on our employer as he could fire us at any moment," he said.
Paul's experience was similar. "I was working cleaning and packing cabbages,
and packing mushrooms, standing by a conveyor belt on cold concrete all day.
When my visa expired my employer left me on the same job but my salary was
now less than half what I'd earned before. During police raids, I had to
flee into the forest just like all the others."
Friends had not been paid by their agency for weeks, and were then turned in
"A migrant's life is not an easy one. You constantly risk being cheated,
robbed or deported. You have no rights, no moral support. You simply don't
feel like a human being anymore." Paul said.
Peter came as a student and pays bribes to his English language school to
keep his visa valid even though he does not attend. He works full time
instead. "I have a younger brother - I am paying for his university. My
father works very hard, but he can only make $60 (pounds 32) a month, which
is not even enough for groceries. My mother has cancer. I miss them so much,
but I am their only hope. I am the only one who can support them."
Although official figures are not available, estimates put the number of
Ukrainians working in London as high as 40,000, with possibly up to 100,000
Ukrainians in the UK as a whole, according to Mr Shakhno. "It is easy to
condemn these people but we shouldn't forget they have been compelled by
force of utter need to leave their family and friends," Mr Shakhno said.
Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and privatisation in 1991, the
Ukrainian economy has floundered. About 70% of the population live in
poverty as defined by the Ukrainian government. Research by the
International Labour Organisation found that a quarter of those surveyed had
not received their wages in the preceding three months.
The result has been an exodus, with between 5million and 7million Ukrainians
leaving the country to look for work abroad in the last 10 years.
After May 1 and the enlargement of the EU, Ukraine will be on the eastern
border of the union. The TUC predicts that once other eastern European
countries that have been sources of illegal labour in the past join the EU,
bad employers will look outside the EU for replacement undocumented workers
they can employ on low pay for long hours.
The Ukraine already provides a fifth of entrants under the recently expanded
SAWS scheme and many of those on the SBS work in meat and fish processing,
mushroom growing and hotels and catering. Poland is the only country
contributing more workers on these schemes.
In 2002, more than 2,800 visas were issued to students from Ukraine, many of
whom also work. Very few Ukrainians claim asylum - only 365 out of a total
of 84,000 applications in 2002. The TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber,
called on the government to change the way employment schemes were
administered so that they were not abused.
"Hundreds of unscrupulous agencies, gangmasters and employers are getting
very rich very quickly off the back of migrant workers. Media and political
anger should be directed at these exploiters, not the migrant workers coming
here to build themselves a better life back home."
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