Exploited Chinese migrant workers in the UK: what their stories tell us

Louise Woodruff of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is the author of this explosive report and analysis of exploited Chinese migrant workers in the UK. In this 4 part special, Nee Hao Magazine has exclusive coverage of the findings in this report, and will cover the stories from the migrant workers’ interviews. This report will also be available in Chinese sometime next week. 

“At the beginning I was very tired. I had to work six-and-a-half days a week and only got half a day off. I can’t remember how many hours I had off. I had to work 11.30am until 2pm then a break until 4pm and then worked until 11pm.”

“In Fuqing, a worker’s salary was the second lowest in China. Only about £10 a month. But in the UK I could earn about £985 per month … .I only had one choice, which was to work abroad.”

These are the words of Yan Fen and Xiao Li , Chinese migrants working in the UK. They were interviewed, with thirty others, for new research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The study aimed to find out more about the experiences of these workers:

  • why and how they came to the UK;
  • how they found work;
  • what that work was like; and
  • how important family was in their decisions and everyday lives.

So, what did they find?

Poverty levels and lack of opportunities back in China meant the workers felt they had little choice but to seek work abroad. But this came at a huge financial and emotional cost. Families would pay fees of sometimes nearly £30,000 to travel facilitators (snakehead gangs) for their journey and entry to the UK. Immigration status was a constant worry for the workers and there was considerable confusion about how the asylum system works.

The migrants mostly found jobs in Chinese catering businesses – although some worked in other sectors such as construction. They found jobs through word of mouth or by paying a fee to a friend or family member.

Work often involved long hours for less than the minimum wage, mostly ‘cash in hand’ with no contracts or payslips. Holiday pay was not available to most of the workers. Many jobs also involved living in shared and cramped accommodation on site. While the workers expected to work very hard in the UK, they had not anticipated the relentlessness, loneliness and exhaustion they experienced. But workers did feel they could move between jobs – perhaps to earn better wages as their skills improved or if they did not like a particular employer. They moved between businesses and around the country. In fact, the research suggests a separate micro-economy operating within the Chinese catering sector in the UK.

Although interviewees did not have sustained experiences of forced labour, most had experienced elements of work which could be described as forced labour. Debt was particularly significant: most owed large amounts of money to their families – who had paid travel facilitators in China – and wanted to clear this debt as soon as possible. So while there was no debt bondage with their employment, these huge personal debts meant they were extremely vulnerable and had no choice but to stay in exploitative work on very low wages.

Family ties are also important. Family provided emotional support, broadened their lives outside work (for families in the UK) and gave motivation to keep going. On the other hand, interviewees felt tremendous pressure to move abroad to support family members, pay off debts owed and to earn enough to avoid the shame of being less successful than other families’ overseas workers.

This study raises difficult questions. Law-breaking by employers was rife and the workers provided a cheap workforce to undercut legitimate businesses. Their labour provided cheap takeaways and restaurant meals and other services which many of us enjoy. And of course this is also an issue of immigration policy, with many of the migrants interviewed not able to work legally. Surely it is simply wrong for people to be exploited, whatever their status and however complicit they appear in their own abuse? If we are to make a difference, we need a number of things:

  • Better regulation and enforcement of business, employment and health and safety legislation.
  • Empowerment of workers through the provision of good information and support.
  • Engagement by the business community in tackling poor employment practice.
  • Better labour rights for all migrant workers, whether regular or not.
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