For the past year, FLEX has been collaborating with workers in the cleaning, catering and hospitality sectors to understand what issues people are experiencing at work and what change is needed. Peer researchers, the workers taking part in this project, are central to every aspect of the research from deciding what questions to ask in interviews and surveys to collecting data by interviewing their peers. We are also working together to identify recommendations for different actors – workers, employers, the UK government and others – and to form a plan of action for positive change.
To celebrate International Migrants Day on December 18th, this week FLEX will publish four new blogs written by our peer researchers, in which they share their experiences as migrant workers in the UK and their views on what is needed to ensure our workplaces are free from abuse and exploitation.
I am Juliana and I come from Brazil. I have been in the UK since February 2019, when I moved here with my son and husband. Before coming here, I worked as a manager in a bank for 12 years.
I lost my job in 2017 after being made redundant. Even before that the economic situation in Brazil was really bad. After that I worked a few temporary jobs but the pay wasn’t enough to cover my mortgage and my child’s education so when my husband also lost his job, we decided to use my redundancy pay to cover the costs of my Italian citizenship. My brother was here in the UK and he said there were job opportunities, so we decided to move here.
What kind of issues have you, or your colleagues, experienced at work in the UK?
There are plenty of jobs but living here is hard. I started working for an outsourced company as a room attendant in a hotel. I decided to work there because the pay was good. At first I had about 45 minutes to clean a room. A few days later I was told I had to do the same amount of work in 30 minutes. The following day my supervisor wanted me to finish cleaning one room in 15 minutes. I tried telling her that was impossible but that created a really bad atmosphere at work. I was getting really stressed – my hands were bleeding from changing the bed sheets so quickly. My hands would rub against the bed frame and get hurt but I was so stressed out that I felt no pain. I would only notice they were bleeding when I saw the sheets had blood on them. My back really hurt as well. The next day I decided to quit.
I then started working as a cleaner. I have a good relationship with my clients but had a problem with an intermediary who connected me to one of them. It was quite humiliating. I needed a place to stay and I knew she had a spare room in her house so I asked if my family could live there for a while. After I moved in, she wanted me to clean her house, the one that I lived in with her. She said she’d pay me £10 to clean the common areas of the house. I didn’t think that was fair because she charged each flatmate £20 per month for cleaning and supplies – so my husband and I were paying £40 total – and yet I was only paid £10 to do this job. I didn’t feel like I could say “no” to her, so I did it. My husband kept telling me it wasn’t fair so after a while I told her I didn’t want to clean our shared house anymore. She was uncomfortable with it and started creating problems. She noticed she couldn’t control me anymore, so she wanted me to leave. She gave me, my husband and my son less than a week to move out of her house. I’m looking for flats now.
I had to give up the job with the client I found through her. It was ok because I was uncomfortable working for that person. That client asked me to do things that I thought weren’t safe, like cleaning things that were really high up. I was afraid of falling down and hurting myself. When you have children, you think about what would happen to them if something bad happens to you. But I didn’t feel like I could say “no”, so I ended up doing it anyway.
In your view, what do you think needs to change to improve working conditions for people working in cleaning and hospitality?
The government should increase the minimum wage – it’s too low. They should see that this is really hard work. It would be better if people would be paid enough to live instead of having to do so many jobs. Without migrants, what would this country look like? After Brexit, do they really think British people will do these cleaning jobs? We’re the workers, the migrants, but we’re invisible. People working in the offices that we clean treat us like we’re not there - we’re invisible. Some workplaces are better but there are some that are horrible.
For people who are undocumented it’s even worse. They are constantly scared and have to accept whatever job there is, they have to keep quiet. They are scared of being sent back to Brazil if they complain about the employer. You hear stories about employers calling immigration anonymously to get rid of people who are “causing trouble”, who complain about bad working conditions. How is the government supposed to protect people who are undocumented? When someone doesn’t have documents, they don’t have options – they can’t fight for better working conditions. The government should give opportunity to migrants who are here without papers to regularise their status. That way the government will start benefiting from their taxes, the workforce will have better working conditions. The government needs migrants to do these hard jobs. It’s a fact – we’re the only ones willing to do these jobs.
I’m now in a much better condition than I was when I started working here. I have more knowledge, so I don’t have to take just any job. I can pick which jobs I want to do. As part of FLEX I can help other migrants who are here in the UK by sharing the knowledge I’ve gained. Workers need to come together to share information. Without knowledge we don’t know what to do, what is ok to accept.
If you could give advice to yourself when you first arrived in the UK, what would you say?
If I were to give myself advice before I got here, I’d say: go with the state of mind that no one will help you. You’ll have to fend for yourself. Learn the basics of the language and be willing to work hard because you’ll work really hard – your back will ache and you’ll have to keep working. Here, all you do is work. There’s no leisure time. I’m in a rush to enjoy life, I want to travel, see the world. I thought I would be able to do this here but it’s really hard. I’m on a shoestring budget. My husband and I, we want to go back to Brazil but first we need to save up some money.
Find more information on FLEX’s participatory research here.
If you work in hospitality (e.g. catering, hotel housekeeping or as a kitchen porter) or the gig economy (e.g. as a courier or delivery driver) and would like to get involved in this project, please contact [email protected]
Participants in this blog series have chosen how they want to be named.