'The forgotten key workers'

UniteLIVE highlights the abuses migrant workers face amid pandemic

Reading time: 12 min

This week, on the first anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, UNITElive is featuring some of the top stories we have covered on the pandemic and our members’ contributions, concerns and achievements.

Back in December on UN International Migrant Workers Day, we highlighted the struggles faced by migrant workers amid the pandemic.

As we reported in December, in the UK and across the world, migrant workers are among the lowest-paid, most exploited and most vulnerable workers in our communities.

It may come as no surprise then that, because of the discrimination they face, they have also borne the heaviest burden of the pandemic, with Covid-19 infection rates twice as high in migrant communities than in the general population in many countries globally, including the UK.

Despite this terrible burden, migrants are among the forgotten key workers, with many working in sectors such as food processing, cleaning, health care and other essential areas that have kept nations going in times of crisis.

On UN International Migrant Workers Day today (December 18), the UN highlighted why it was vital that countries commit to protecting migrant workers.

“Like many who find themselves living on the margins of society, migrants are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 through job losses, evictions and discrimination,” the UN noted. “Millions of migrants are stranded, often without income or shelter, unable to return home due to COVID-19 mobility restrictions, and they also face increased risks of trafficking and exploitation.

“The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to rollback commitments to promote and protect the rights of migrants regardless of their legal status.”

UniteLIVE today highlights the plight of migrant workers, many of them Unite members, who have been treated horrendously during the pandemic in various sectors in the UK whose labour these industries absolutely depend on.

Hotel horror

In the hospitality sector, Unite has catalogued a number of abuses facing migrant workers in high-profile hotels both before and during the pandemic.

In some cases, migrant hotel workers who were obliged to sign minimum wage contracts with up to 50 per cent of earnings derived from service charges, were then consequently furloughed on far less than 80 per cent of normal earnings and there has been no offer at all by employers to top pay up.

Many hotels have refused to provide translated communications or interpreters for those with English as a second language who have struggled to understand issues in redundancy and contract change consultations.

Unite member Jolanta Gintal, a former breakfast manager at the Blythswood Hotel in Glasgow, said she believed she was unfairly sacked for her trade union activity, and 137 of her colleagues also lost their jobs because parent company Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) said they ‘couldn’t afford’ to keep them on furlough.

“During the redundancy ‘consultation’ myself and over 50 migrant worker colleagues at the two flagship IHG hotels put a collective letter to the company requesting translation support for those who may not fully understood what was happening to them,” she explained. “The company flatly rejected these reasonable requests and staff were told to ‘use google translate’.”

“Days after we were terminated, IHG brought in staff externally and from other hotels and agencies on lesser wages and terms to cover our roles,” Jolanta said, adding that with the support of Unite she and her colleagues are continuing to fight the unfair dismissals, legally and politically.

Unite has discovered other hotels forcing migrant workers to sign zero or minimum hour contracts of as little as six hours week to keep their job. Those who were not willing to sign have then been dismissed and furlough money was claimed to pay their notice.

Meanwhile, Unite has also learned of workers in staff accommodation being given in some cases less than 24 hours to vacate accommodation when they have been fired or made redundant. Many were left in limbo because of flight restrictions preventing them from returning home.

Unite member Martin Kovacs, a bar-worker at the Fisher’s Hotel in Pitlochry, told of how he and his colleagues were sacked on December 1and given just days to vacate their accommodation or face eviction.

“The company refused to re-furlough us claiming they couldn’t afford the 5 per cent employer contributions,” Martin explained. “They even tried to charge us for the days we had to stay there until we were able to get home to Hungary, Poland, Spain and Czech Republic.”

Thanks to collective action through Unite Hospitality, Martin said that a “short but effective media campaign involving politicians and charities” forced the Castle Hotel group, parent company of Fisher’s Hotel, to withdraw its eviction notice and commit to allowing worker to stay throughout Christmas and be fed by the hotel.

“We will continue to campaign until we have been reinstated on furlough,” Martin vowed.

‘Lives are in danger for the meat we buy’

While migrant workers in hotels fight to keep their jobs and the hospitality sector alive, migrant workers in the food processing sector are working flat out in dangerous conditions just to keep up.

Unite Wales regional officer Brian Troake told UniteLIVE how meat processing plants, where the workforce is composed overwhelmingly of migrant labour, are set up to practically invite transmission of Covid-19.

“The working environment is a very harsh one that extends the length of time the virus can survive,” he noted. “There’s cold, humid conditions with recycled air and very little access to external air. There’s lots of stainless steel work surfaces. High power water jetting is used to clean surfaces at the end of the day so that creates an aerosol and puts the virus back into the air. Taken together, while these are all in place for hygiene reasons, they all extend the longevity of the virus.”

On production lines, workers work literally shoulder-to-shoulder and face-to-face, and before and early on in pandemic, there were no physical barriers or screens between people.

“Despite the government’s guidance about social distancing in the workplace, it was only guidance and not mandatory so very few bosses were fussed about it,” Brian explained.

But thanks to pressure from Unite and collective action from workers, many of whom refused to work or walked out earlier on the in the pandemic, many meat processing factories have put in place more stringent safety measures.

Unite forced the erection of barriers, the use of low-power cleaning alternatives that don’t propagate aerosol, and other measures to promote social distancing such as separating shifts.

Still, problems remain, with meat factories being at the epicenter of Covid outbreaks in many communities. Several migrant workers in food processing have died after contracting Covid-19. Brian said the situation will not change unless companies pay full sick pay or the government substantially increases statutory sick pay.

“It’s not like these migrant workers have a nest egg to fall back on,” he said. “They haven’t got any savings. They all want to do the socially responsible thing if they have symptoms and not go into work. But what’s the reward for doing that? They’re plunged immediately into hardship. A lot of our members have reported being unwell but they have to work. They didn’t know what else they could do.”

Brian highlighted an anonymous survey of migrant worker members at one meat processing facility and he said the feedback was heartbreaking. Members said they were ‘being treated like animals’, that the pace of work was too fast and there was a general lack of respect from management.

“I’m afraid to say anything because the bosses just tell us well you don’t have to work here,” Brian quoted one member from the survey.

He added that it was vital that the government take the abuses that migrant workers face more seriously.

“I’ve described migrant workers throughout this pandemic as the forgotten key workers. They’ve kept the nation fed throughout this pandemic and they are some of the lowest paid people in our communities.

“It’s a really appalling situation – people buying meat while so many people’s lives are in danger for that piece of meat,” Brian said. “How we treat our migrant workers is a measure of our society. In Britain in general and Wales in particular I think there is a lot of solidarity among working-class people but the powers that be in Westminster and around the world just want to exploit migrant workers and create divisions between us.”

‘Cleaners are at the frontline of the pandemic’

Unite regional co-ordinating officer Jose Vallejo Villa, who supports migrant workers in the services industry, particularly those working on cleaning contracts, told UniteLIVE of the discrimination migrant workers have faced during the pandemic.

“They’ve been the first in line for being sacked or made redundant. In many cases they are dismissed without going through the proper redundancy procedures. They were just given a P45 without any discussion. We’ve been able to support many members in getting their redundancy pay but it just shows that migrant workers are exploited by employers because these bosses know that many aren’t aware of their rights.

In other cases, Jose continued, some migrant workers who were furloughed left the country back to their home countries for a period of a time, without being informed by the company that they couldn’t claim furlough without authorizing their employers to claim on their behalf in their absence. Many migrant workers have lost out on significant sums because they were left in the dark by their employers.

Jose said also that some employers have even fraudulently claimed furlough money while still requiring workers to work.

Like Brian, Jose highlights how migrant workers are the forgotten key workers in this crisis.

“In my area in particular, these migrant workers have been on the frontline in the pandemic as cleaners. Of course, doctors and nurses and other health professionals are very important workers battling this pandemic, but cleaners – the vast majority of whom are migrant workers – have ensured our workplaces are free from contamination. They are absolutely key workers.

“It’s vital that on UN International Migrant Workers Day, everyone is aware of the abuses migrant workers are facing. At the end of the day, the United Kingdom is a nation of migrant workers – the plight of migrant workers should concern us all.”

Reset employment practices call

On UN International Migrant Workers Day, Unite has called on global hotel chain groups which employ migrant workers to clean up their act – and has urged the government to further investigate.

 “We believe these global hotel chains’ conduct towards migrant workers before and during the pandemic has been in breach of the principles of the OECD guidelines,” said Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett.

 “Tourism in the UK looks like it will be one of the industries that could be well set for the post-pandemic, post-Brexit world, therefore we can’t allow poor and discriminatory employment practices in hotels cause reputational damage to the sector,” he added.

 “To this end, we are writing to the Commons Business select committee to ask it to initiate an inquiry in the new year into how hotel chains treat their low-paid workforce, with special reference to the additional hardships that fall on migrant workers.”

 Unite national officer for hospitality Dave Turnbull added, “We believe that tourists in 2021 will be looking to support hotels that treat and respect their workers well, and we will be making sure that visitors know exactly which of these businesses fall short in this respect.

 “United Nations International Migrants Day is an opportunity to highlight how global hotels have ill-treated the migrant workers they relied on so heavily prior to Covid-19 during the past 10 months of the pandemic,” he noted.  

“Now is the time for these global hotels to dramatically reset their employment practices so they are ‘fit for purpose’ when tourism – one of the world’s biggest industries – picks up by the summer of 2021 as the various vaccine programmes come on stream.”

While Unite will continue to push the government and employers to treat migrant workers better, the union will as ever push forward with its work organising these workers.  

Brian told UniteLIVE that organising migrant workers has always been notoriously difficult because of language barriers but Unite has risen to the task and will not give up.  

“At the moment we’re setting up a migrant workers network in the region, where if say, we need to support a Polish worker who only speaks Polish, and there’s no Polish rep on site, we can find one in a different workplace. We need to keep organising so we can make some positive in-roads and try to improve their pay, conditions and lives.”

Jose agreed, and highlighted Unite’s migrant worker education programme, which provides English, technology and a range of other classes.

“The biggest benefit Unite can offer migrant workers is education – to give them the tools to defend themselves in the workplace,” he said. “In my experience, when migrant workers access that education through Unite they are members for life.”

You can find out more about UN International Migrant Workers Day here.

By Hajera Blagg

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