Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Gangmasters, etc

The Guardian has uncorked a big investigation series on Britain's horrible no-rights employment world.
"Over the last year the Guardian has investigated some of the networks of labour agencies operating around Sussex, to throw a spotlight on the gangmaster system. The findings highlight a historic pattern to the allegations of abuse which suggests the problems may not be isolated but structural to a "flexible" workforce."

Now, does that sound anything like this Yorkshire rant from July to you?
"But an important point is revealed by the Guardian story in that link, and that is the convergence of the legal and illegal job markets. This is a very serious factor for everyone who has opposed the Asylum Cry, as it breaks down one of our best arguments. I usually argue that anti-immigrant policies never work in the sense of preventing immigration - even on an island like the UK, people still turn up - but do have the effect of creating a criminal industry in people-trafficking. The demand and supply remain, and cutting off the legal routes transfers it to the illegal routes. This means that the immigrants who do arrive end up working in fearful conditions in a criminal environment. The smuggling industry grows and demands more and money from its passengers, and after a certain point it starts to vertically integrate with the low-end of the labour market.......[snip]....The culture of reliance on illegal labour, and the criminal structure around it, are infecting the economy. The same features - welshing, exploitation, cooperation of employers, immigrant gangsters and smugglers - are appearing in the legal world. Is it too much to suggest that the tough line policies of the last decade have led to a criminalisation or barbarisation of parts of the "legitimate" economy?"
"The investigation has found that a large and growing section of the British economy has developed beyond the normal parameters that regulate business. Workers brought into the country, many carrying false identification, are effectively operating outside civic society. They have little legal protection, making them vulnerable to exploitation......[snip]....the problem may be inherent in the structure of Britain's casual workforce and not simply caused by a few unscrupulous employers."

I recall working in a Royal Mail distribution centre in the summer of 2003, a job arranged through a low-rent agency that I'm entirely sure was doing pretty much everything mentioned here, itself or at one remove. We had a good number of people who I'm fairly certain were illegal immigrants. (I and other British workers there frequently had to translate/intervene for them in disputes about pay. I suspect they were frequently ripped off.) For their part, the Somalis had leverage over the boss because they supplied his qat habit. So what they probably lost they made back on the drug profits. More immediately worrying was the minibus trip to the warehouse, chiefly due to the driver, who had a tendency to turn up to the 10pm shift change either drunk or drugged and to drive at 90mph plus. One night I noticed he was talking to himself next to me as we howled along the stygian motorway. For some bizarre reason no-one except me bothered to wear seat belts.

As far as work safety went, the main danger was of being struck by a forklift truck (they sped constantly around us). No-one ever did much to prevent it other than to hand out some hi-viz vests. I don't recall that we were ever informed of fire precautions or first aiders, which would have been especially problematic due to the considerable number of non-English speakers involved. We weren't usually allowed to use the posties' canteen - I suspect because the (mostly ancient) Royal Mail staff didn't want black people in it.

Just to cap the lot, they took almost a year and had to be prodded by the Revenue before they gave me a P-45 (the document, issued on leaving employment, needed to sort out your tax status when starting a job). I wonder if they really paid the tax they doubtless deducted from the less fortunate?

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