The invisible workers

People like Marianna, a doctor, clean our toilets, sweep our roads, care for our elderly. They shoul

The frail 23-year-old woman with long brown hair took the stuffy overnight train to Kiev six times, sitting alone among the milling crowds in the stark waiting hall at the British embassy, before she grew frustrated and turned at last to the black market. She was desperate to leave Ukraine: she had recently finished her medical studies, but to secure an internship, she would have to pay a $3,000 "gift" to the head doctor. This was a near-impossible sum when, as a family practitioner, she would make only $22 a month. So Marianna had decided to travel to England to earn her fortune.

There she would join her husband. Eight months earlier, in October 2000, Oleh had closed his wine distribution business in Ivano-Frankivsk, a provincial town in western Ukraine: he couldn't afford the bribes sought by the tax police on top of the 95 per cent rates he already paid in official taxes. He had fled to London using illegal documents provided by "the firm", as Marianna called it. A few months later - and $2,000 in debt to the firm - Marianna set off on a coach to England, feeling "calm but cold", clutching a student visa, and leaving Katrussia, her ten-month-old daughter, behind.

She is not alone. Of the 3,000 people in the village near Ivano-Frankivsk where Marianna grew up, half now labour abroad. The pattern is the same across the whole of eastern Europe - Ukrainians, Belorussians, Moldovans, Lithuanians, all the nations that emerged 11 years ago from the remains of the Soviet Union, are now pouring into Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Britain.

As a result of this burgeoning economic migration, there are now hundreds of thousands of people like Oleh and Marianna living among us. They are a secret, undocumented, even invisible population. But they are there, all the same. They stare back at us over our coffee-shop counters, they clean our hotel rooms, they toil in the dust of our building sites. And their numbers will swell as the new Europe opens its borders farther to the east.

"The amount of people who are working outside normal labour conditions is huge," says Nicola Rogers of Advice on Individual Rights in Europe (Aire). She adds: "From what I can see, there is a severe underreporting of illegal immigrants in this country. There is an increasing use of trafficking and smuggling. That is not surprising because people can't come here by legal routes."

At the small, bare terraced house in north London, the Ukrainian woman who lives across the landing from Marianna and Oleh has been slitting her wrists. She has also been shoplifting and using forged Tube tickets. Everyone in the illicit migrant community possesses some forged papers - a Lithuanian gang, nicknamed "the Manipulators", provides Marianna, Oleh and their friends with any false document they need, from passports (cost: £1,500 in cash) to a bank account (£100) to false National Insurance cards (£40) - but most use them sparingly, and carefully. Marianna, who has been showing me her daughter's creased photograph pinned to a wall in the tiny bedroom, is crazy with fear that her unpredictable, suicidal neighbour will bring the police to their door. If that happens, she says, then she and Oleh "will have to leave the house and run away quickly" and never return. Over the past two years since they came to England, they have moved house five times, always to one of the cheaper neighbourhoods that form a ring around central London: areas such as Stratford, Seven Sisters, Clapton and Leytonstone that most of the new migrants call home. Sitting there now, it seems a far cry from the majestic, dilapidated avenues of western Ukraine.

"We are trying not to develop close friends here," says Marianna, leaning forward at the kitchen table. A thin woman with wide cheekbones, a mole on her cheek and small glass earrings, she is very pale and visibly shaking. The tips of her faintly dyed hair curl on her shoulders. "Though we do have acquaintances, perhaps a hundred people we know, all Ukrainians. We all keep in touch by mobile phone."

After I have managed to coax Marianna to talk for a few minutes, Oleh, a lean, fair-haired man in his early thirties, wearing a fake designer blue T-shirt, tracksuit trousers and running shoes, bounds in to show me a well-thumbed photograph album. In one of the photos, a two-year-old girl wearing a yellow dress and with a cheeky grin stands in a flower-filled garden. The fair-haired girl gazes out from the picture at her parents, who sit in the kitchen 1,000 miles away. Together, Oleh and Marianna stare longingly at the image. "She looks a lot like me," Oleh says. He left when his daughter was six weeks old and hasn't seen her since.

When, two years earlier, he arrived in London on a dark October evening - the bus from the east rolls in twice a week, packed with economic migrants on "student" and "tourist" visas - Oleh was met "by the boys", three friends who had already made the journey west.

His friends set him up with a building firm. To get the job, he only had to produce a bank account number and (false) ID, both purchased from the Manipulators. Since then, he has worked all over the city. On a bright morning earlier this month, Oleh leant against a metal railing in front of his latest construction site, a 200-metre-wide hole in the ground beside one of central London's busy roads. Arms of yellow diggers twisted above lorries. From the grey earth, glistening steel pipes stuck out like a cage. In his gang, Oleh said, there were "four Ukrainians, two Poles, one Mongolian, some English and many Irish"; all the foreigners were employed at cheap rates to lift and carry, to do the dirty groundwork that the British and Irish workers refused to do.

"I work hard - shovel, jackhammer, everything." For these labours, he gets paid £6 an hour, less than half the amount the British and Irish workers receive. "Six pounds is considered very, very good money," he said. He works ten hours every day, half-days on Saturday, gets Sunday free. "We have to work hard all the time," he said, nodding at the blue wooden cabin high up near street level. "Our boss watches us from his office, and if anyone stands around, the boss will come out and point and say: 'Take off your jacket. Go home. Don't come back.' And that's that." He shrugs. "So we keep working."

"These people are being pushed to the margins of the British workforce," says Tauhid Pasha of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. "They have no recourse to labour controls, which means they are open to exploitation."

When Marianna first arrived in England, she had no job for the first six months. "It was a catastrophe," she says. Then she found a job cleaning hotel rooms. She took home around £20 for an eight-hour day. For better money, she found work in south London, "washing shirts in a laundry with 200 other workers, and they were all illegal". She earned £130 for a five-day week, but because she was working unlawfully, she had no means of complaining when her boss cheated her out of £400 back pay, part of which he said was a "deposit".

She went back to cleaning hotel rooms, but it was hard. "There were never any white English people there, but there would be some black English people working with me," she says. "I was paid £4.20 an hour, the others got £6.20." With a monthly house rent of £400, she and Oleh manage to save around £1,000 each month, which they despatch to Ukraine in a minivan run by a private courier that ferries food, clothes and letters across Europe. They are saving to buy their own apartment back home, which will cost around £9,000.

But Marianna doesn't know how long they can continue: "I have finished medical school and here I am treated like lower-class help. When I come home, Oleh says I look like a grey old woman. I glance at my medical textbooks. I sleep. But when we go back, we must be able to provide a life for our daughter."

Despite the privations suffered at home and in work, migrants from eastern Europe like Oleh and Marianna continue to flock to Britain's shores. It is clear that these people are not asylum-seekers. They are not fleeing torture or death in their blasted homelands. But neither do they arrive in Britain intending to live easily on our state's handouts: they come genuinely seeking work. They are a people battered by cruel forces of history, by two world wars, by Stalin. Now, the collapse of communism and the efforts to build capitalism have left them free but impoverished.

They are here doing the work that Britons are not prepared to do: they are the ones cleaning our toilets, sweeping the roads, caring for our elderly.

"The fact that they then engage in work demonstrates that there is an economic need for them," says Nicola Rogers of Aire. "They are fulfilling a need in the labour market in the UK that people here are not willing to meet. So long as there is a market for them, then they will keep coming, either legally or illegally."

The exact size of this new workforce remains unclear. John Salt, director of the migration research unit at University College London, has estimated that there were roughly 1.1 million foreign nationals working legally in the UK in 2000. But "nobody has done the work yet that quantifies the illegal population", he says.

The government's policy response in the face of such numbers has so far been muted, to say the least. The Home Office has eased some rules to attract highly skilled professionals, as well as expanding schemes to draw lower-skilled farm labourers for seasonal work, though these schemes have been criticised for still leaving workers exposed to gangland exploitation. For countries about to join the EU, new pre-accession agreements exist to grant some entrepreneurial migrants official status. But the application has to be made from their home country, and the process is so lengthy that, according to Nick Rollason, a specialist immigration lawyer in London, "although there are lots and lots of people who are coming in under this route, some genuine, some arranged by gangmasters, there is still a lot of illegal immigration".

Meanwhile, UK officialdom ignores the rest of the great, desperate masses who continue to press through Britain's notionally locked gates. They are here, they pass us on the streets, they huddle in the shadows of subterranean bars singing songs of their Slavic homeland and in the small ornate churches dotted around London, taking the seats closest to the door for fear of police raids. Or they sit in shabby suburban flats, like Oleh and Marianna, studying photographs of a loved one left behind.