Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The story of one of Brent's migrant underclass who is likely to be sleeping rough tonight

Mohammed S Mamdani of Sufra NW Foodbank has sent this out to supporters. I am posting it with his permission.

Not a small proportion of food bank users these days are EU migrants. The kind of people who come to this country to work. Work that people like you and I can’t do, or won’t do. Most probably, both.

Alejandro is a 29-year-old migrant from Spain who came to this country over a year ago. He arrived at the food bank last Friday, peered through the office door and asked if I could help. He spoke impeccable English, so there was no need for me to test out my GCSE Spanish. He says that he has no food or electricity at home and then takes out a bunch of papers – bank statements, bills and his employment contract.

Like so many migrant workers, Alejandro is employed on a zero-hours contract washing pots at a restaurant in Central London. He has not been given any work for the last 2 weeks, and he’s unable to go elsewhere, as he’s obliged to be available for work at the whims of his employer. Whilst some employers will see this as a flexible working arrangement akin to the Uber mantra, it’s just another way to cut costs and deny holiday or sick pay.

Alejandro has responsibilities and commitments. He cares for his boyfriend who has HIV and recently contracted TB. Back in March 2016 he had to spend over a month in hospital with Alejandro caring for him by his side. This morning, he is in court contesting his eviction notice as he can’t afford to pay the rent.

Without any doubt, Alejandro and his bed ridden boyfriend will be sleeping rough tonight. The complexities of our benefit system mean that despite their EU status they are in fact ineligible for housing benefit.

I don’t want to come across as a left-wing liberal or trade unionist whinging about zero-hour contracts (although you’re probably right about the whinging). I cannot believe that even the most right-wing conservative would fail to comprehend the injustice of Alejandro’s situation.

Crudely speaking, Alejandro came to this country for work (in a labour market where we struggle to fill these jobs) to shovel our shit. Mind the French.

In recent weeks the BBC broadcast a new documentary series entitled “Britain’s Hardest Workers: Inside the Low Wage Economy”. After watching the first episode, you quickly realise that Britain’s workers are not British at all. They’re people like our Spanish immigrant, Alejandro.

In the first episode, presented by the gorgeous Anita Rani, we learn the seedy side of hotel room cleaning. At a luxury hotel in Leeds, workers are expected to clean a hotel room in 24 minutes, regardless of the state left by the previous occupier. Apart from wiping pools of urine off the bathroom floor, the towels must be folded perfectly, the lamp shades need to be dusted and the bed linen spotless. If you can’t do that in 24 minutes, you can wave goodbye to the paltry wage of £21.60 for a three-hour shift (in which you’re expected to clean an average of 7/8 hotel rooms). Even if you were offered more hours, you just couldn’t keep up. I’m ashamed to say, but I couldn’t do it.

Hearing the stories of food bank users like Alejandro makes you quickly realise that this great country with its glorious tradition of democracy and human rights, has an underclass of migrant labours who are exploited, abused and then vilified by the tabloid press. Our condemnation of the treatment afforded to migrant workers in other parts of the world such as rich Gulf states betrays a dirty secret much closer to home.

Next time you’re dining at a swanky restaurant or lying down to rest in a 5-star hotel, think about how much of your final bill actually went to those who cooked, served and cleaned for you.

What does this mean for Alejandro? I’m not quite sure. We’re looking for work so that he can quit his zero-hours contract but that’s easier said than done. Especially when you don’t have the money to get on a bus to a job interview. And who wants to give a job to someone who is street homeless, and has nowhere to wash before work? The cliché rings true. It’s a vicious cycle.

There’s someone else peering through the office door and beckoning for help. Better get going.

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