"People in England live differently . . ."

Polish migrants work for tiny wages that British workers won't accept. But many have only the hazies

Marek was bearing up bravely when I met him before Christmas. He was pleased to get away from the Berkshire cottage where he and nine other Polish builders were sharing three bedrooms, paying a total of £2,200 a month for the privilege. He'd put on a good shirt, looked elegant, pulled-together. He seemed a different man from the one who had been weeping on the phone just a few weeks earlier, begging me to go down and see him.

As we walked into the village pub he glanced around, shook his head, smiled. "People in England live differently," he told me in Polish. "You've no idea." He would have loved to buy me a drink; but, without a word of English, he was stuck, humiliated. He naturally assumed it was his own fault.

Welcome to the new Europe, a world of opportunity for the enterprising, of cross-border flexible working, deregulation, outsourcing and price-cutting. Since the ten accession countries joined the EU last May, men like Marek have become a cliche. Family men and breadwinners, they are typically recruited in their home villages by Polish reps of employment agencies based abroad, and they all too easily end up cut off from any notion of their rights while working hard in the UK and Ireland, the two countries quickest to open their borders to the new waves of eastern European workers. Their inability to speak, read, write or understand English makes them vulnerable; their shifting location keeps them disorientated. So they stick together, do their best, endure, dream of home, hope to get paid, hope to save up. They have only a hazy idea of how cynically they are being exploited, not only by the agencies that brought them here, but by an overall economic structure that gives a flexible, disposable workforce priority over welfare - a structure that neither the British nor the Polish government seems in any hurry to dismantle.

Marek rummages in his pockets, pulls out a few well-thumbed bits of card. "Tell me what these payslips say," he pleads. "I can't understand them." It's the only documentation he has.

I peer at them: the cards are tiny, the print more so. There is no company name, no contact address or phone number, no identifying registration number, no date. Marek doesn't know what the agency employing him is called, where its head office is - though he knows it's not in England - or the name of his local manager. His own name is printed on the payslip, then his hourly rate as a skilled craftsman builder (£6.50). He has earned £1,010 for the past month. Deductions are listed below: income tax £231, council tax £15, rent £220, transport £89, "debt" (a registration payment to the agency) £300. For a month's work he is left with £155, out of which he has to buy food and other essentials. It doesn't leave much to send home. But if Marek manages to send £60 a month, that's roughly equivalent to what he would have earned in Poland.

He is a textbook case. A Citizens Advice Bureau document, "Nowhere to Turn" (www.citizensadvice.org.uk), quoted by TUC South West in its 2004 discussion paper Migrant Working in the South-West, lists common themes of 21st-century agency migrant working in the UK: misleading recruitment of workers in their own country; a reality of extremely long hours, low pay and poor accommodation; excessive deductions from pay; failure to provide a contract of employment or payslips; denial of basic employment rights; confusion over who the employer actually is; frequent failure to ensure that the worker has a National Insurance number, with the apparent failure of the employer to pay tax and National Insurance; summary dismissal and immediate eviction of workers who assert their rights.

Marek is no fool. He knows he is unregistered, that he is at risk; he understands my suspicion that his so-called "income tax" might not be reaching the Revenue. What he doesn't see is the key part all this is playing in the creation of that very wealth that seems to him so unattainable, a standard of living that smacks him painfully in the face every day as he humbly restores antique brickwork, lays parquet floors and fixes windows in the valuable homes of well-off Thames Valley professionals - people who are all too happy to buy in fine workmanship at a keen price. "I see how they live," he says. "Two cars in the drive, she's off at the gym, he sits in front of his computer all day, they want for nothing. Beautiful children, well-mannered. They're relaxed, they've got time to be friendly. Not like us."

He is thinking, I know, of his home, his teenage children, doing well at school and with innocent hopes for the future; of his wife Anna, a textile worker, unemployed since the unwieldy, ex-communist concerns closed a few years ago; of his sick and elderly parents-in-law who live with them, and whose care falls to his wife; of his own vanishingly slight prospects of employment there. They live a half-hour's bus ride out into the country, in a self-build house they can't afford to finish. It stands on the family land, a smallholding acquired by Anna's great-grandmother in the time of the Russian tsarist occupation in the 1850s. Through all the turbulence of that period, and the Bolshevik wars, the First World War and the return of Polish independence, the Second World War and Nazi occupation, and then the long years of communism, this eight-acre holding was the family home.

In communist times it was a going concern. Anna, her brother, parents and grandparents all lived in the old wooden, single-storey cottage under the trees along the dusty, winding village road. There were chickens and ducks, a shiny chestnut horse in the stable, a cow grazing on a medieval strip of meadow, tethered to stop it nibbling at the neat rows of potatoes, wheat, beet and barley further along. The family shared the work and lived off the results, selling and bartering their surplus produce locally to augment the pittance paid to them for state-sponsored employment.

It was a living of a kind, though they resented the back-breaking labour, the primitive and crowded living conditions and narrow prospects. Everyone yearned to modernise. When Anna and Marek married they left the cottage to her parents and built the modern house, with hot and cold running water, across the yard where the stable used to be. Anna filled in the duck pond, planted a lawn. Their mood was more optimistic then.

On the phone to Poland, I ask her how the farm's going. She is dismissive. "A bit of wheat and potatoes, four chickens. Most people aren't even doing that. They're just letting the forest grow back. You can't sell anything, so what's the point? Practically every home in this village has someone in the west now, anyway." There's no space to be sentimental about the loss of tradition and farming practices when families are being ripped apart on this epic scale. Anna gets £8 a month child benefit; just one pair of trainers costs twice that. Although wages are very low, prices of consumer goods are high in post-communist Europe. In Poland, where setting up in business is still beset with expenses and difficulties, and where even professionals and skilled workers usually earn only between £100 and £150 a month, people take a calculated risk. They know that not everything is easy in western Europe; but if they can earn even a little more there, it's worth it.

The economies of the host countries, meanwhile, are prospering. Unregistered migrant workers cost very little; they can claim no benefits, and are generally afraid to ask for help. Others pay their way. The TUC estimates that since 1 May 2004, registered migrant workers have contributed more than £4m a week to UK gross domestic product and are paying more than £0.5m a week in tax and National Insurance. Few want to stay here long-term.

While the TUC, jobcentres and big employers are starting to liaise with community groups and workers themselves in delivering support and advice to migrants, legislation to deal with the anomalous position of agency working, in which migrants do not qualify as employees but as workers on contracts to provide services, has been slow to follow. An EU-wide agency workers' directive, which would have helped to regulate the flexible working market, was blocked by both the UK and Polish governments, nervous that it could undermine existing regulations. The UK has since changed its position, but progress is slow. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority will begin work in April to curb abuse of migrant workers in the agricultural industry.

Marek was looking forward to going home for Christmas when I met him. "I'll kiss my wife. I'll hug the kids," he said. "And I've saved a bit of money. It's three times as much as I'd have earned in Poland. That can't be bad, can it?"

Three weeks later he was back in Berkshire, with a new group of men, waiting to be called for work. Anna won't see him again until June. "He might as well stay there. At least he's earning something," she says on the phone. "I'd do it as well if I could. Most of the time, I just pray. That's what keeps me going."