Foreign workers have been coming to the UK for centuries but recently there has been a rise in xenophobia and hysteria about them which has been fed by rightwing parties such as UKIP.
UKIP called the Con/Dem government’s policy on foreign workers as “an abject failure”, even though it has restricted all types of foreign workers coming into the country. Stricter regulations, the tightening up of criteria for students who want to study here and higher financial costs for UK citizens who want to sponsor non-EU relatives have actually led to a decrease in the numbers of foreign workers.
In their document Campaigning Against UKIP, Ed Milliband says Labour campaigners should listen to the concerns of voters who are shifting their allegiances to UKIP. Labour were run a close second by UKIP in the October 2014 by-election in what was a safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton. They are now concerned about the UKIP effect in Labour held seats in the general election.
But what is the reality for foreign workers who are living and working here? I decided to go out and speak to them because they rarely get a voice in these debates.
“I can pass” is the response of Irish woman Ciara O’Sullivan to my question about being a foreign worker in Manchester. Ciara calls herself “an accidental emigrant”. She was part of the generation that did not have to emigrate in the 1990s as the Irish economy boomed. “I bought a house in Dublin, got a job in a British bank based there and was offered the opportunity to travel so I left Ireland for Europe.” But after the banking crisis, which resulted in her bank closing down in Ireland in 2008, Ciara could not go back and instead went to London. “I had nothing to go back to in Ireland. The economy was falling apart and people were starting to emigrate again.”
Ciara lived in London and then came to Manchester, a place she feels comfortable in. “The north west is very much like Ireland in many ways. I feel I can slot in much easier than say a worker from eastern Europe.”
Listening to people’s comments about foreign workers has led to her intervening to remind them that she is one of them. “Occasionally I throw in the ‘don’t tell UKIP or the Daily Mail that I am here’“. Ciara says, “This is not my country. However long I live here I will always be Irish.” She has experienced anti-Irish racism, “I get a lot of potato jokes which I can deal with but I know when to tell people to back off.”
Not all highly educated foreign workers can get into professional jobs, Agnieszka Kotarba, for example, achieved a Master degree in engineering in Poland but found it impossible to get a job in the industry. In 2006 she came over to Manchester with her husband and child but found out that her language skills affected her employment prospects and she could not get a professional job. “I worked as a cleaner and now I work in a supermarket.”
Racism is an everyday occurrence for her.“It is at work, mostly teenagers, when they hear my accent.” One day when she was on the shopfloor by herself one of her regular English customers really shocked her. “He is usually very nice but not that day. He said ‘I will try to get rid of you. You think you are better because you are Polish. I will give you a year and then you will be out of this country’.”
Agnieszka also finds some of the press coverage about foreign workers upsetting. “I think it is targetted against Polish workers.” . And how does she deal with it? “I smile”. But she does think it is unfair, “We work hard, pay taxes and don’t take benefits.”
Agnieszka is settled in this country: both her and her husband have jobs, while her children (she now has three) have grown up here speaking English as their first language, though they are also fluent in Polish. Her life is in Britain, even though she experiences racism, for she enjoys the lifestyle and she also likes living in a city that has such a multicultural mix.
Shortages of nurses in the NHS has led to growing number of foreign nurses working in our local hospitals. Yesenia Herrera is one of many Spanish nurses who have had to move country because of the economic crisis in Spain and the lack of jobs. Highly educated (she has a nursing degree and Masters in specialist care and anthropology) she has been able to move around the local hospitals and get a specialist nursing job.
Yesenia’s experiences have largely been positive. “English people like Spain and I feel they appreciate me coming here to be a nurse” but she has heard of other nurses having different experiences. “One Indian nurse, who has been here 10 years, told me about the racism she has experienced.” Getting experience in the NHS does mean that she is improving her chances of getting a job back in Spain. “Working in the NHS gives me extra points as a nurse which will help me apply for jobs at home. Also working here means that if I want to go and work as a nurse eg. in Australia it will be much easier.”
The UK is part of the EU and free movement of labour is a key, if contentious, issue in this country. Parties such as UKIP have jumped on the bandwagon of blaming EU migrants for the unemployment of UK workers. What they have failed to address is the state of the labour market and the increasing insecurity for all low-skilled workers, particularly those in the health care sector.
The adult health care sector has faced massive cuts.
Care work has become a revolving door as workers come and go, leaving to get better work at more than the basic £6.50 per hour. Care work is easy to get into because of its zero hour contracts, low pay and poor working conditions.
My mother has care workers and it is noticeable how many of them are foreign and from a variety of countries eg Dutch Guiana, Congo, Nigeria and Jamaica.
Over the years, as they have cared for my mother, I have struck up friendships with a number of them and listened as they told me their problems of working on zero hour contracts for agencies that offer them little in terms of decent wages and conditions of service and also the abusive nature of some of their clients. Unlike the other foreign workers I have interviewed they did not use the word racism or prejudice.
When I told two of the foreign care workers that I was writing this article they were supportive of the idea but wary of any publicity or involvement in telling their story, even given full anonymity. Unlike the other foreign workers I interviewed they had little sense of security: they were looking for better jobs but were stuck because of their lack of qualifications and limited work experience.
Foreign workers play a significant role in this country.
What is shameful in the debate led by the political parties is that they know we need foreign workers in this country, that they are part of an honourable tradition of people who have come to this country over many centuries. But most importantly the national debate fails to recognise that in some parts of the labour market, including the NHS and care sector, if it were not for foreign workers these organisations that we all depend on would collapse.
In my conversations with foreign workers it is noticeable that they are not happy with the increasing levels of xenophobia that they witness in the press and amongst some of the people they work with. Like most people they get on with their lives but it will be interesting to see if and when they vote in this year’s General Election whom they decide to give their vote to.