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International Migrants Day 2019: Marisol Urbano

December 18, 2019

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.

My name is Marisol and I’m from Quito, Ecuador. I migrated to the UK from Spain in 2013 and to Spain from Ecuador in 1999. I moved to London because of the economic crisis in Spain and because around the same time I got divorced. I have two daughters, 15 and 19 years old, who live with me and my mum, who is 69. We are a feminist household!

At the beginning, my plan was to return to Spain after five years, but I have decided to stay because I see different options here for my daughters. It is also better for me, as there is more work. I have been working for the same cleaning company as a cleaner and a supervisor for the last seven years and also at the same client company. In Spain, I worked in social care for ten years, for an NGO based in Madrid called Candelita, in the Pachamama centre, supporting Latin American women.

It’s very important for me to do volunteer work with Latin American people, especially women. In the UK, I have volunteered at many different places: Ecuadorian House (SENAMI), El Teléfono de la Esperanza, Volunteering Matters, Calthorpe Project community, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, and now with FLEX. Additionally, I organise a number of activities for the Latin American community, such as trips, karaoke, creative workshops, organic farming, etc. with which I aim to help the integration of women living in the UK.  For example, my first community project was a book club to help people improve their English while also learning about British culture. Currently, I have my own organisation called Family Emotional Wellbeing Project (FEWP), which provides immediate emotional and mental health support to the Ecuadorian community living in London.

In the sector you work in, what are some of the issues you have experienced?

At the moment I am a supervisor in the cleaning sector. While here, I’ve seen managers change fourteen times. In my experience, every manager is different, and with some I’ve had bad experiences. Many have been racist towards Latino people, especially Latinos from Spain, which was very surprising for me. Many managers –mainly men– also had a ‘special interest’ in my female colleagues. Sometimes they would tell me to give special attention to someone because they liked them, or they recommended people to work with me even when we didn’t need new people. If I refused, the manager would remind me that I worked for them. Fortunately, the client company has stood by me every time. They are like my family.

What do you think needs to change for people to have a better experience at work?

I think government should pay more attention to workers’ rights. For example, this year in May, my manager said that covers [covering someone’s work when they are absent] would no longer be paid. Instead, the extra work would simply have to be done by others on the same shift, with no additional time or pay. This was not right and together with a trade union, United Voices of the World, we organised our workplace and won the right to paid covers, sick pay and the London Living Wage.

Contracts should be renewed every year and should be shorter and easier to understand. It is important for migrant workers to have their contract in English and Spanish, or to have a translator or interpreter when signing. I see this during the interviews I have done for FLEX. People don’t know what contract they are signing. Is it zero hours, it is full time, part time? They just want to be paid, but they don’t know if they get payslips or they don’t understand the deductions in their payslips. It is important to change this.

Another issue is sexual harassment in the workplace. A lot of people contact me saying they have experienced sexual harassment or abuse from their managers, their supervisors or even their partner. Maybe there is not enough awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. In my seven years working with community organisations here in the UK, I have seen how important it is for organisations to have a dedicated team to help people who have experienced sexual harassment or abuse.

A lot of drop-in services for women are only open during the week, which means many cleaners, who are only free during the weekends, can’t access them. This is hard on women. Domestic violence and sexual abuse happen every day, not just during the week. People need to understand how important it is for women to have these opportunities for support, to have these spaces. There needs to be more, not less. When someone gathers the courage to report to the police or to a trade union what has happened to them at work or at home, it is important that they get support.

These are big important changes to how life is here, but they are not impossible. Step by step. Integration is not just about language; it is about the change you bring to the world and the change you bring to how you live life.

If you could give advice to yourself when you first arrived in the UK, what would it be?

I would definitely give myself advice about contracts.

To other people coming here, to integrate. They often have the idea of staying here temporarily and they only stay in their community. This is why it is important to change the rules; to work, to study, to help families integrate. A lot of people say they like this country, but they would like to go back to their country of origin. I love Ecuador and I would love to go back, but I can’t at the moment. I need to stay here for my daughters. This is true for many migrant families.

Many complain about British people, that British people are bad or treat them badly. I think it is not about nationality, it is about the human being. What is important is the person, not their nationality. If someone is a bad person, it is because they are a bad person, not because of where they are from. There are bad people in every country. The important thing is to be together: interculturality and intersectionality. To accept people. I believe in accepting people but there needs to be respect for everyone. You can’t treat people differently based on their sexual orientation, if they are an economic migrant or coming here to study.

I think moving to London has been a good change for me, because this is a new society, a new community. I am integrated with so many different people, LGBTQ people, Latin American, British, European people. I am not scared, because I don’t see you for your nationality, or for the fact that you are a migrant, I see you as a person. And I like it when this person is true, is a human being.

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.