Regulate the gangmasters exploiting Bulgarian and Romanian workers

Romanians and Bulgarians are already here, ‘self-employed’ and used in the construction industry by unscrupulous employers

The construction union Ucatt is opposed to the exploitation of all workers. When the initial eastern European expansion occurred in 2004, a large number of migrant workers began working in the British construction industry. The general pattern we found was that migrant workers were at the greatest risk of exploitation when they first came to the UK, when they often fell victim to dubious employment agencies and gangmasters. However, the longer migrant workers were in the country, the more likely they were to avoid being exploited and be receiving the right pay for the work they were doing.

Construction is a highly casualised industry: roughly 50% of workers are classified as self-employed, although many of these are falsely self-employed (self-employed while having the working practices but none of the rights of an employee). Work is often temporary, with workers frequently moving sites and employers.

Exploitation can flourish even on the largest sites because, unlike the agricultural and food processing industries, construction is not covered by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which has significantly reduced exploitation in the sectors it covers.

In 2008 Ucatt uncovered a case of a migrant worker working on a PFI hospital in Mansfield earning just £8.80 for a 39-hour week. In 2010, on another publicly funded hospital site, we took a case to an employment tribunal on behalf of migrant workers who were being paid just over £4 an hour, well below the minimum wage.

It is these and similar cases of exploitation, and the fact that workers regularly move between employers and sites, which has led to some UK construction workers fearing that their rates of pay could be reduced.

Recently there has been speculation about what effect giving Romanian and Bulgarian workers the full right to work in the UK next year will have.MigrationWatch has estimated that up to 50,000 people from those two countries will enter Britain when curbs run out at the end of this year.

Since 2007 Romanian and Bulgarian workers have been able to enter the UK freely and have been allowed to be self-employed, many of whom are working in the construction industry. In practice this means there are already large numbers of Romanian and Bulgarian workers being exploited. The self-employed don’t have any employment rights or protections and even minimum wage legislation doesn’t apply.

These issues were covered in a report for Ucatt, The Hidden Workforce Building Britain, published in 2011. The report examined how and why migrant workers were being exploited in the construction industry. It described how large numbers of migrant workers, mainly Romanians and Bulgarians, gather early in the morning in the car parks of Wickes stores in London, in the hope of being picked up and getting work.

The men told the report’s authors that on the days they did get work they were paid cash in hand, receiving as little as £40 for a nine- or 10-hour day. One 25-year old Romanian said: “I’m always paid cash in hand and it’s always less than the minimum wage. But I do it because I need to eat. I know it’s bad but you have no choice.”

Before 2007, when other migrant workers have come to us with similar stories of exploitation, we have been able to help, including exposing large construction companies who had allowed these practices to occur on their sites. But given the self-employment rules covering Romanians and Bulgarians – and the fact that they face the possibility of being heavily fined if found to be working illegally – there is often little that can be currently done.

It is for these reasons that Ucatt has argued that the employment restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers should be lifted as soon as possible. By ensuring that these workers can be employed and protected by employment rights the level of exploitation will be reduced and the problem of workers being forced to work for wages that undercut existing rates will decrease.

With regards to an “influx” of workers, the unavoidable fact is that many workers are already here working in some capacity or other. If the government was serious about ending the exploitation of construction workers they would extend the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to cover the construction industry to prevent unscrupulous employment agencies and gangmasters operating in the industry. Given their obsession with reducing regulation, this looks unlikely

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