At the end of last month anarcho-syndicalist group Liverpool SolFed helped a worker on a precarious contract to force a prestigious Liverpool hotel to pay her wages they’d stolen. Her testimony below talks about the problems being faced by migrants in Britain today facing, alongside unscrupulous employers, a system of checks on everything from references to getting a bank account that work to undermine people’s will and ability to stand up for themselves. And of the importance of organisations which help us to support one another in the face of such tactics.
Looking for a job was not as easy as I thought. In order to start working, I needed a bank account, but to open a bank account can be hard, since banks are not allowed to open an account without a work contract.
When looking for a house, we faced similar problems. Agencies asked us for a minimum stay of six months. References from previous jobs in the UK and UK guarantors were also required. Dealing with private landlords can be easier, but you are going to face problems if looking for a short stay as I was.
Sometimes these people – agents, bankers and officials – seemed like computers more than humans. Therefore, their ways to fix problems is far from reality and thus extremely inefficient – one of the thousands of bureaucratic contradictions.
However, after proper preparation of my CV and cover letter and an application for a National Insurance Number, I found a job in three weeks for a major hotel services company. This company hired workers and distributed them to different hotels throughout the country.
My duty was to clean rooms in one of the best located and prestigious hotels in the city of Liverpool. In the first meeting with my manager, I found out that the minimum wage for me would be even lower because I was under 25 years old, that my contract was just verbal and I would not have a written contract until after two months working there, and that some workers were working there under “zero hours contracts.” This means that you do not have any guaranteed working hours. I say “I was able to find out,” because nobody explained my working conditions to me, either at the beginning or end of my work experience there.
The fact that we had come from abroad also gave us problems, a reality that I could share with my colleagues, as most of them had come from Eastern Europe. I have a precious memory of them, for their enormous working capacity and fellowship. Those with the longest experience were forced into higher productivity to keep their jobs. This means more rooms and less time per room, even when we were paid per hour.
I also had problems as the work had to be fast and impeccable. I could endure – some days better than others – working with pressure and alone, but the worst was to come. After two weeks of work, pay day had arrived, but not the money. I waited two weeks more, and another two. Then I received my first payment. It didn’t correspond to all of the hours I had worked, not even to half of them.
At the hotel they hardly gave me any explanation when I asked. They did not consider the problem as their own, even though I was working in their hotel. As I mentioned earlier, a large part of the staff are outsourced by a larger company that was in charge of the payments. There were some other colleagues in my situation. The pace of work left us no time to spend exposing our complaints, and none of our managers cared to explain anything to us.
I was feeling desperate. I was afraid to leave my job without receiving my salary and I needed that money to cover all the expenses of leaving my country and living in the UK. Through my partner I knew of Solidarity Federation (SolFed), an anarcho-syndicalist union in Liverpool that was being re-organised by, among others, some compatriots with a bit of experience in industrial action in the UK.
As soon as we contacted them, they offered us support. If someone had told me before that it would be necessary for me to be reminded of my rights and my legitimacy to fight for them, I would not have believed them.
In situations of vulnerability, when your life is just your job, when everywhere you are continuously reminded that you are an immigrant, you end up believing that you are entitled to less rights. When you are afraid of not receiving your salary, and furthermore when you depend on it, you end up believing that to demand the wages owed to you is something that you should not do. It is in these moments when other people’s support is really needed so you can make your demands happen without feeling bad.
So, with SolFed comrades’ support, I started to act. I contacted the company again, but this time in conjunction with SolFed, and after a week I had the whole amount owed. My gratitude to these comrades is infinite, not only for helping me recover my money, but for reminding me that when we organise we are stronger and for demonstrating that these kinds of organisations and actions are effective. In short, there is still hope.
Against power, counter-power.
This article first appeared at the liverpoolsf blog