These labourers provide a cheap supply of ready manpower. Photograph: Getty Images
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Cheap, and far from free: The migrant army building Britain

Revealed: how job restrictions have left Romanian and Bulgarian construction workers underpaid and vulnerable to exploitation.

The men gather in the shadow of the Wickes hardware store, looking out for the odd jobs that keep them in the UK and for the police that periodically moves them along.
    
As day labourers on the margins of Britain’s sprawling construction sector, they provide a cheap supply of ready manpower, useful yet often unwelcome.

Their presence provokes frequent complaints from the residents of Seven Sisters, a north London neighbourhood where the cafés offer a greasy “builder’s breakfast” for less than five pounds.

With no offices or agencies supporting them, the day labourers crowd the pavement and advertise their trade through their attire – grubby tracksuits spattered with paint and plaster.

When potential clients pull up, they haggle over rates and hitch rides. When the police show up, they run.

Across the road on a sunny July morning, Jarek collects his groceries and stops for a chat with some friends.

“Illegal people,” is how he describes the 30 or so men waiting outside Wickes. Like them, Jarek is an immigrant. Unlike them, he comes from Poland and does not panic when he sees the police.

He too is a builder, but he does not do business on the pavement outside Wickes. Instead, he travels on a moped fitted with a toolbox, dispensing glossy flyers advertising “cheap and reliable contractor services” in ungrammatical English.

Jarek is one of around a million workers who moved to the UK as a result of the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe in 2004. The scale of the migration, most of it from Poland, prompted a backlash against the British politicians who had failed to anticipate it.

The day labourers are mostly Romanians and Bulgarians, and relative newcomers to the UK. They arrived after 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria – the so-called A2 countries – joined the EU.

Despite Jarek’s suspicions, the men’s presence in Britain, or indeed outside Wickes, is not in itself illegal.    

All that separates him from the newcomers is a web of restrictions, designed to deny A2 migrants the many advantages that helped Jarek and his compatriots establish themselves in the UK.

Free to stay but not free to work, the Romanians and Bulgarians fulfil a narrow function – meeting Britain’s need for underpaid and unprotected labour.

Nervous and suspicious

The construction sector accounts for more than 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP. It is the centrepiece of the government’s plan to revive the struggling economy, and the recipient of regular subsidies and stimuli.

Critics say the government’s restrictions on A2 workers have benefitted the construction sector by boosting the ranks of poorly paid and loosely regulated labourers. They accuse Britain of trying to build its way out of a double-dip recession by undercutting pay and conditions for other, relatively well-established, workers.

A Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) investigation shows that A2 workers are generally prepared to work for lower wages and in worse conditions than others in the construction industry. Many interviewees spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not wish to attract the attention of the authorities.

Unions and safety officials agree that the A2 workers’ immigration status has driven them into the highly casual end of the building trade, where procedures are more likely to be ignored and injuries and grievances are less likely to be reported.

The UK government justifies its restrictions, arguing that they have protected the British workforce by preventing another surge of immigration of the scale that brought Jarek to the country.

Statistics from the Department of Work and Pensions show that around 210,000 Romanians and Bulgarians have received a National Insurance (NI) number since their countries joined the EU five years ago. This figure offers a very rough indication of how many migrants from these countries may be working in Britain, without taking into account those working illegally and those who have since returned home.

By comparison, some 640,000 Poles have received NI numbers over the last five years, from the total of more than a million over the last decade.

Large construction guilds, meanwhile, insist that their members are bound by law to ensure working conditions are safe and fair. When the rules are broken, they say, the migrants are often complicit.

Some migrants interviewed by BIRN seemed to confirm this, saying they worked in the grey economy to avoid taxes. But as many are underpaid, the incentive for doing so is also greater.

If caught working illegally, the migrants face a fine of up to £1,000 pounds (about €1,300) and a possible prison term.

However, the day labourers in front of Wickes are in little danger of being busted, as they can always claim that they intend to declare any earnings.

Their nervousness around the police stems less from a genuine fear of prosecution than from a general suspicion of the state.

Facing severe restrictions in the job market, they have been funnelled towards a zone where there is no clear distinction between the lawful and unlawful, or between the exploitative and the cost-effective.

“The police have asked me for ID… Sometimes they say you can stay, sometimes they make you leave,’’ says a middle-aged day labourer from Bulgaria who gave his name as Neven. “I stay,’’ he adds. “What are the police going to do to me?’’

 

Numbers game

Upon arrival in the UK, all foreigners in search of work are expected to apply for an NI number.

The number is a prerequisite for anyone seeking legitimate long-term employment. It is effectively the code upon which the state builds each individual’s record of taxes, pensions and benefits.

When Jarek came to Britain in 2004, Poles like him had little difficulty acquiring an NI number. But by the time Neven migrated five years later, Romanians and Bulgarians were finding it harder to register.

A2 nationals are automatically allocated NI numbers only if they have travelled to Britain on a type of work permit that is issued with direct offers of employment.

However, these migrants are in a minority. Most Romanians and Bulgarians travel to the UK without work permits or any firm promise of employment.

Eager to start earning, they gravitate towards the construction and hospitality sectors, where they can eventually skirt the need for a work permit by registering as self-employed.

Migrants who fail to prove they are self-employed, and therefore fail to get an NI number, often end up on the margins of these sectors, getting paid cash-in-hand for casual jobs that require minimal paperwork.

Bulgarian and Romanian embassy officials in London told BIRN that their citizens were finding it harder to get an NI number, in some cases logging five unsuccessful attempts. Many of the day labourers outside the Wickes at Seven Sisters fit this category.

“No money, no job in Bulgaria,” said a 45-year-old migrant who did not give his name. He said he had twice applied for an NI number, and had been refused both times. He had not found work for two months and was living off his savings.

"Smaller sites, bigger risks"

Undocumented workers are more likely to be seriously injured on the job, according to trade unions and safety experts.

A young Romanian man, whose name has been withheld on the advice of his lawyer, told BIRN he had been electrocuted while operating a jackhammer at a site in London. “I don’t remember much,” he said. “There was smoke. My arm was burned.”

The man had been working in Britain without an NI number and had learned about the job from a friend. He says he was not asked to provide any documents or sign any contracts before starting work, and was paid cash-in-hand. Although he received some basic safety instructions, he says he had trouble following them because of his poor English.

Construction unions estimate that some 80 per cent of workplace accidents go unreported. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK watchdog that monitors safety in the workplace, does not keep any data recording the nationality of injured workers.

However, it acknowledges that migrant workers are more exposed to accidents and less likely to report them, even though they cannot be deported or penalised for doing so.

Richard Boland, the HSE’s head of operations for construction in southern England, says “the vulnerability that comes with having restrictions on when and where you can work” can drive builders to sites where the safety rules are not enforced.

HSE’s inspectors are now shifting their focus away from the large firms towards smaller sites because the latter, he says, are more likely to ignore standards and to employ relatively inexperienced migrant workers.

"Silent accidents"

Romanian and Bulgarian workers who manage to acquire an NI number still face curbs that did not trouble an earlier generation of immigrants from the EU.

Most jobs in construction are arranged through specialist employment agencies, which are typically small companies with a record for hiring from within a particular immigrant community.

These agencies act as subcontractors for bigger firms, delivering casual labour to large sites at short notice and handling much of the associated paperwork.

According to lawyers and labour experts, the A2 workers hired by such agencies are less likely to complain of dangerous conditions and low wages. Many fear being blacklisted in an economy where their options for employment are already circumscribed.

Remus Robu, a paralegal with UK law firm Levenes, often handles claims arising from accidents involving A2 workers. “Unfortunately, there are people who do lose their job when they file for compensation,” he said.

The Romanian owner of a small building company, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the existence of an informal blacklist for workers who were regarded as troublesome. But, he said, this was no different to the system of references shared by employers in other industries.

“Would you hire back somebody who had filed a claim against you?’’ he said.

The owner also told BIRN that he had persuaded a worker against reporting an accident that had led to a broken leg. He said he had paid the injured man a full wage throughout his time in recovery, and guaranteed him further employment when he was fit again.

“He agreed not to pursue a claim against me because I have a good relationship with my workers,” the owner said.

According to the HSE, any accident that leads to a broken leg has to be reported under UK law. If an employer is found to be at fault, lawyers say a worker can expect to receive between £6,000 and £36,000, depending on the severity of the injury.

Small construction firms are usually keen to avoid having claims brought against them, as these can hamper their ability to secure fresh contracts.

"Informal economy"

As well as discouraging complaints over conditions, employment agencies often pay A2 migrants a lower wage than other workers.

Many agencies deduct a form of commission from workers’ pay packets. In some cases, a payroll company – often linked to the agency – will charge an additional “admin” fee for processing salaries.

The A2 migrants have no safeguards against these cuts to their earnings. As self-employed workers, they are not eligible for the UK’s minimum wage, currently set at just over six pounds an hour.

Moreover, although technically expected to pay their own taxes, self-employed labourers are automatically taxed at source at a rate of 20 per cent, under a government scheme that applies to the construction sector alone.

The construction workers’ union, UCATT, has called for the scheme to be scrapped, saying it facilitates a form of bogus self-employment. Britain’s opposition Labour party also recently said it would review the scheme.

However, an official from the UK’s largest construction trade association said the workers in this category deserved no more sympathy than their employers for undermining their “legitimate competitors”.

“Both parties gain from effectively breaking the law and, as such, those A2s who collude in false self-employment cannot be portrayed as innocent victims,” says Peter O’ Connell, a policy manager with the Federation of Master Builders.

Stephen Ratcliffe, director of the UK Contractors Groups, a guild representing the country’s top construction firms, said criminal proceedings should be used against the “informal economy” where companies flout tax, employment and safety laws.

Both O’Connell and Ratcliffe stressed that the members of their organisations abide fully by the law.

The UK’s main trade body for employment agencies, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, declined to comment despite several requests from BIRN.

Given the ways in which working through employment agencies can eat into their earnings, many A2 workers decide to opt out of the system.

The day labourers outside the Wickes superstore in Seven Sisters include some who have an NI number but choose not to use it.

A Romanian man, who refused to give his name, says he has been in the UK for six years and regularly pays his taxes and contributions to the state.

But he supplements his official income by working cash-in-hand. “People hire me to paint their house. If they ask for an invoice, I can issue one. Otherwise, I don’t.”

“I’m done working with the agencies,” he adds. “They take too much of your money.”

Most of the men outside Wickes said they expected to earn around £50 (€60) a day. By comparison, a self-employed Romanian recruited legally through an employment agency for marshalling traffic at a building site, can expect to earn £80 (€100) per day. In other words, he will be paid only £30 (€40) more than the day labourers, out of which he must fund further tax and NI contributions.

Recruitment agencies say they pay the same wage, regardless of nationality. However, unions say that British and Polish workers can expect to be paid £9-10 per hour for jobs that will be offered to A2 workers for £5-6 per hour.

As they do not face any working restrictions, Polish and British workers are in a better position to negotiate their rates or simply take better jobs in other sectors. Romanians and Bulgarians are more likely to go with what they are offered, as they have fewer options on the job market.

"Good for business"

According to its critics, the current policy on A2 workers has created a system that deprives the state of tax revenues, undercuts British labour and leaves foreigners open to exploitation.

Labour MP Jim Sheridan has argued for tighter regulation of the employment agencies in the construction sector, along the lines of the licensing of agricultural gangmasters.

Others call for reducing self-employment in the sector by making construction firms hire more workers directly. However, this would also shift the burden for NI contributions – nearly 14 per cent of the wage bill – on to the employers.

UCATT convenor Dave Allen admits this is unlikely to happen, as it would leave the big firms with smaller budgets. “The government knows that if everybody was directly employed, the economy might suffer,” he says.

Bridget Anderson, deputy director and senior research fellow at Oxford University’s migration think-tank COMPAS, says the government should, at the very least, enforce the minimum wage regulations on all workers, British and foreign, self-employed or not.

She says the rhetoric about protecting British jobs was misleading: the curbs had undermined the established workforce while benefitting businesses by giving them a more pliant workforce.

“The more you focus on immigration control, the more you introduce transitional arrangements – the more you create a labour force that is actually more desirable for employers,” she said.

EU members cannot prevent the citizens of other member states from travelling to their countries for work. They can only impose “transitional controls” of the kind currently in place in the UK against Romanians and Bulgarians.

The UK is just one of several EU states that have imposed restrictions on A2 workers. Similar restrictions exist in Austria, Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

By law, the curbs must be lifted by January 2014. However, a statement issued by the UK Border Agency last year confirmed it would apply similar “transitional restrictions” on all new EU member states to ensure that “migration benefits the UK and does not adversely impact our labour market’’.

The UK’s Border Agency, the immigration minister, and the Department for Work and Pensions all declined to be interviewed for this article.

Sorana Stanescu is a Bucharest-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. All photographs from Getty Images.

Sorana Stanescu is a Bucharest-based journalist.

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile