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.

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.