Chinese migrant workers: lives in shadow

Hsiao-Hung Pai
30 May 2008

"When you see the Iceland store, you will be able to find Brook Road. Walk to the end of that road, the garment factory is on the second floor. You can't miss it. The building looks very run-down." Chun's voice at the other end of the mobile phone is anxious. To "argue reason" with an employer on a wage-claiming mission is always a tense occasion, but this particular boss has the kind of reputation that leads two Chinese workers to volunteer to accompany me.

Hsiao-Hung Pai is a journalist who was born in Taiwan and now lives in Britain. She writes for the Guardian, specialising in stories about the Chinese community, and for UK-Chinese publications.
She is the author of the Chinese-
language work Hidden Assembly Line: Undocumented workers in Britain (2006) and Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour
(Fig Tree, 2008)

Hsiao-Hung Pai's researches were the basis of Nick Broomfield's film Ghosts, about the death of twenty-
three Chinese cockle-pickers in northwest England in February 2004; see Sam Geall,
"Britain's hungry ghosts"
(27 October 2006)

Also by Hsiao-Hung Pai in openDemocracy:
"Migrant labour - the unheard story"
(2 February 2006) Chun and her sister had arrived from China's Zhejiang province only a few months earlier. They found work in the garment factory in a run-down district of London, enduring long hours, poor conditions - and so far, no pay. It has taken them more than a month to gather courage to try to recover their wages in the only way that seems possible: confronting their boss directly.

"The boss owes me £800 - 179 hours of work. My sister is owed £700 wages." This rate of pay means that the sisters are seen as the "lucky ones" by colleagues who are paid just over £3 per hour for working on the sewing-machine all day. But no one has seen any money yet.

We arrive at the building and sneak upstairs. In front of us is a bare factory floor, empty but for a few old sewing-machines and piles of rugs on the floor. A tall man with heavy features shouts out to us: "What do you want?" I reply: "I'm looking for the manager, Fano."

The man shakes his head and says he doesn't know what I'm talking about. We insist on finding Fano. "Come over here." We climb over the rugs, through this airless room, and follow him into his office.

"I took over from Fano last week. This is a different company now", he tells us, having said a minute ago that he doesn't know who Fano is. His name is xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx [identity contested, ed.]; he is director of Giant Fashion Ltd, and in fact he had been Fano's business partner. Fano had avoided paying his workers what they were due by announcing the factory's closure, leaving everyone jobless as well as wageless, and letting xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx  [identity contested, ed.] be the front-man of a new venture. The factory's (ex)-workers suspect that these two men plan to employ a new workforce, extract the maximum effort from them for the longest possible period, then use the same tactic to cheat their employees out of their sub-minimal wages.

"What can we do about this? We have no shen-fen (immigration status)." Chun shares the pessimism of her colleagues; most have given up trying to retrieve their wages. The sisters have found work in another garment factory in London, with only the hope that things will be different this time. "Our earnings and our future are in [the employer's] hands. We have no one to protect us."

The way it works

This complete lack of protection for migrants without legal status or documentation makes them vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous figures who exploit and then abandon them. The problem is acute in the small- or medium-sized manufacturing business sector, but the same conditions can apply when migrant workers find themselves working for well-known multinational companies. The unregulated world of labour recruitment is a trap with many locked doors.

Jing is a full-time worker and a 44-year-old mother of two. She and her husband had arrived from Fujian province in eastern China four years earlier. They left behind their then 10-year-old daughter, who is being looked after by Jing's parents-in-law. "We decided to come to work together, because we wanted to earn faster and return to our daughter as soon as we could", says Jing. "Education is a private enterprise in China now. It isn't easy for factory workers like us. We're earning here, to afford a good education for our daughter."

Jing's husband works full-time as a cleaner at a Chinese-run factory in London. She has two jobs: from the early morning until 1pm she works at a bakery in Hounslow bakery, then rushes to catch the bus to Heathrow airport to make the 3pm start to her "evening job", as a housekeeper at a four-star hotel. She was sent here by a Chinese agency - one of thousands of such underground businesses - that illegally charges the workers £200 each for "registration". What is the name of their employer? This question raises nervous glances: he is a well known "community leader".

Jing works alongside fifteen other Chinese housekeepers, mostly women. They come from all over China: some from the same province as Jing, others from the country's north and centre. They are mostly over 30 years old, and all have children back home to support. Their labour is in demand here; the agency's contract with the hotel has been renewed.

"We are usually told about our shift each day, on the day. Every morning, the supervisor calls and tells us whether we have to work that day. Most of the time we have a lot of work - six or seven days a week. When I get there, loads of work is allocated to me", Jing explains. The evening job at the hotel is much harder than the daytime one at the bakery. "The housekeeping department is always the busiest. We are divided into pairs, to clean all the rooms, make beds, hoover. My colleagues on day shifts must clean thirty-six rooms a day."

More work is being squeezed into the already long hours. The previous contract between the agency and the hotel, which lasted for seven years, said that the Chinese workers should clean eighteen rooms a day; the new contract has doubled this figure, but with no corresponding wage increase.

"That's four to five rooms within an hour, for each of us!" a woman on day shift tells me. "On top of that, we also have to take on other duties, such as office cleaning in the hotel." For their hard labour, the workers reveal that the hotel pays the agency £2 per room, which makes £72 per day (per person). The agency then pays each worker £4.50 per hour, that is, £36 for an eight-hour day.

The invisible one

It is estimated that 60% of the workforce in the hotel industry in Britain is composed of migrant workers. They includes the undocumented, like these Chinese workers, who have moved from job to job and see hotel housekeeping work as a better option than catering work and garment manufacturing, which are lower-paid and more exposed to official monitoring. Chinese workers tend to see working in a hotel as a decent job too precious to lose. So they are willing to accept wage levels below the legal minimum, as well as a lack of employment rights: contracts, sick pay, overtime pay, holiday pay. Their lack of shen-fen and the fear of exposure - as well as limited knowledge of English - keep the Chinese workers in their place. Their cheap labour is a dark secret.

The Council of Europe estimates that there are 5.5 million undocumented migrants living and working within the European Union. In Britain alone, there are between 700,000 and a million; around 170,000-200,000 of them from China. They are everywhere - in the hospitality industry, in manufacturing and food processing, in seasonal agriculture, in construction - but also invisible.

The contribution of these Chinese workers to the British economy is immense. Yet they enjoy no protection at work and suffer from systematic exploitation and abuse. In this, they share the experience of as many as 2 million people who are "trapped in a continual round of low-paid and insecure work where mistreatment is the norm" (see the Trades Union Congress [TUC] report, Vulnerable Employment, May 2008). The TUC defines "vulnerable employment" as "precarious work that places people at risk of continuing poverty and injustice resulting from an imbalance of power in the employer-worker relationship."

This vulnerable condition is characterised by the absence of employment contracts; sub-minimum wages; non-payment of or large and unexplained deductions from wages; poor and dangerous work conditions; discrimination, bullying and racism. The predicament faced by undocumented migrant workers is a more acute variant of it, where such daily occurrences are amplified by employers' power to manipulate the employment and immigration rules to their own advantage.

These workers live in permanent fear and insecurity. They are surrounded by dangers, one step from destitution, pressed into fugitive lives. Ah-Hua moved from a badly paid catering job to the perilous job of cockle-picking in an effort to raise his income, only to find himself harried by immigration raids. He then sought to return to catering, but found that hard as employers were starting to check people's documents. Ah-Hua resorted to selling DVDs, not knowing the trade was run by a local gang. He tried to leave, but was kidnapped and forced to pay the gang almost all the money he had.

Ah-Hua is one of tens of thousands of Chinese migrants who have applied for asylum status only to see their claim rejected, or kept waiting for a long time while it is processed. Many cannot be deported even after they lose their case, because their home country won't take them back; others are in limbo, waiting for the travel arrangements to be made so they can be deported. With no right to work, they must find employment in the informal economy, at the lowest end of the unregulated labour market, dependent for survival on friends and contacts from their hometowns, but often forced to descend even further underground.

The stories of Chun and her sister, of Jing and of Ah-Hua were among those that made me want to document the lives of this silent workforce. The book that resulted - Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour - gives a detailed and personal account of this experience from the inside. The precise circumstances of each Chinese migrant worker are unique, but all face the pressing realities of life on the margins of society. Today, their existence is being made even more difficult by strict immigration rules and controls that reflect the wider failure of a rich but unequal society to accept and accommodate them. They deserve dignity and justice - and to be paid what they are due. They came as strangers, but they have earned their right to belong.

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