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TUC helps migrant workers

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Thousands of Portuguese migrant workers are being encouraged to come to the UK to fill vacancies in agriculture, cleaning and the hospitality industry, but language problems and a lack of understanding of UK employment law is giving unscrupulous employers a licence to exploit, the TUC warned today.

The TUC is concerned that if the same level of ill treatment is mirrored in other migrant worker communities, bad bosses could be exploiting workers on a grand scale. The TUC has examples of Portuguese migrant workers who have been hired and fired at will by their employers, paid at less than the market rate, and denied holiday and sick pay. And because many of these workers lack a fluent grasp of English, their isolation and ignorance of the law is made worse.

To help Portuguese migrant workers achieve better working conditions, the TUC is today (Friday) launching a new dual-language leaflet, Working in Great Britain/Trabalhar na Grã-Bretanha. It covers topics such as National Insurance, employment contracts, maternity rights, the minimum wage, health and safety, working time and holidays, and unfair dismissal. Copies of the free leaflet are being distributed to the Portuguese community and are also available from the TUC Portuguese Workers' Project on 020 7467 1256 (message facility in Portuguese).

Earlier this year, the TUC began working with its sister Portuguese organisation, the CGTP-IN, to provide work and benefits advice to Portuguese nationals employed in the UK, and to encourage these workers to join UK trade unions. And this Sunday (24 June) the TUC is hosting a musical extravaganza for Portuguese workers at Kensington Town Hall to help promote information about employment rights to some of the 20,000 Portuguese working in the UK.

TUC General Secretary John Monks said: "Although as EU nationals Portuguese workers are legally allowed to work in the UK, many are unaware of their rights, and as a result are being treated appallingly by employers keen to undercut their competitors by employing workers on the cheap.

"Companies which support ethical trading initiatives abroad should apply the same rigorous standards to their UK-based activities. Our work with the Portuguese community underlines the need for a government-led campaign to make migrant workers more aware of their rights. A need that will become more pressing if the government goes ahead with plans to ease restrictions on the employment of overseas workers as a way of tackling skills shortages."

This weekend's TUC event for Portuguese workers – the Grande Festival – takes place on Sunday (24 June) between 5pm and 10.30pm at Kensington Town Hall, W8. Topping the bill will be popular Portuguese singer, Manuel Freire, and musicians and artistes from London's Portuguese community will also be taking part. People attending the Grande Festival will be able to speak to trade union representatives – through an interpreter if necessary – to find out more about wages, unfair dismissal, harassment and other workplace rights.

Entrance costs £3, with children under the age of 12 admitted free of charge. Tickets available on the door or in advance from the TUC's Portuguese Workers' Project on 0207 467 1256.

The following case studies give an illustration of the problems faced by Portuguese migrant workers:

  • Fernando speaks very little English and until recently worked for a sandwich factory in North London, but as a result of the cold working environment he developed problems with his back, and spent some months off work. Despite having three years' service, Fernando was sacked by his employer whilst off sick, and he is now having problems obtaining Incapacity Benefit. Fernando's employer still owes him wages, and untaken holiday entitlement. When the GMB recently tried to recruit other Portuguese workers at the factory, the supervisor told them that if they joined they would be jeopardising their jobs.
  • Silvia speaks very little English and has worked part time for the past two years as a cleaner for a company which until recently had the contract to clean government offices in central London. Earlier this year the contract was taken over by another company, and since then Silvia has been trying unsuccessfully to get the address of her new employer so that she pass the information on to her local council and the Benefits Agency. Without this information, she cannot claim housing benefit or family tax credit – and has had to survive without this extra income since March. Silvia also signed what she thought was a new contract of employment, but despite constant requests, her employer has not been forthcoming with a copy.
  • Until several months ago, Maria worked for a company in Hampshire which prepares salad for a major high street chain. She was recruited via an employment agency in Portugal, but was never given an employment contract. She worked 12 hour days, sometimes for seven days in a row, but was never asked to opt out of the Working Time Directive, and was employed on series of casual contracts. No-one from the company ever spoke to her about obtaining a National Insurance number, or about holiday or sick pay. Neither Maria nor any of her Portuguese colleagues ever received any health and safety training, even though the chemicals used to wash the salad leaves regularly brought the workers out in painful rashes. Locally recruited British workers also earned more an hour than the Portuguese workers. Keen to find out more about her rights at work, Maria paid a visit to the Portuguese Consulate and to the TUC Portuguese Workers Project, but on her return to Hampshire was dismissed by the company and given no reason.

 

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