Living undercover as a broke eastern European migrant in Brexit Britain, I learned that minimum wage, health and safety, and “The Rules” in general exist only for natives and those established enough to fight for them. Not for the desperate. Not for the migrants who arrive with nothing.
This is how I entered their world.
I started at Victoria Coach Station, our miserable Ellis Island.
For weeks, I kept coming here. To see the point from which our society is changing. I kept coming until I knew which Eurolines brought in which types of people: the Polish men, tense, lugging bags of tools; the Bulgarians in puffer jackets, with worried faces; the Roma, with return tickets, straight off to the streets to beg.
I spent much of my childhood in the Balkans. That world, it used to feel so far – but now it’s super close. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from watching the Balkans – the faces, the rural voices – unload every morning at Victoria Coach Station. What, in the daze of arrival, did they see?
The earlier the bus, the cheaper, and the migrants, poorer. The closer to first light, I soon found, the less likely the person arriving was to be armed with a plan. It’s so easy to jump from Bucharest and Warsaw to London by bus. Many do so on a whim. A broken heart, a brutal sacking, or just a yearning to try your luck. London is where the runaways come.
That didn’t surprise me. In another life, as another Romanian, Polish, Ukrainian person, I know I would have longed to be one who just goes.
What surprised me was how many, on how little money, were willing to risk giving up their own country for “England” (they never say “Britain”). Sometimes it was an interview at a salad factory. That was enough to leave Romania, vowing never to return. Usually it was £100 in the back pocket and a vague “call me” from a village mate already jobbing in the UK. Often, a rumour the Big Issue was “hiring Gypsies”.
Morning after morning, I met the same blind optimism. “England is a mini-America,” I often heard. “London, she never turned anyone away.”
Not every migrant arrives like this. Most EU migrants – the vast majority – arrive with jobs, plans and professions. Yet at the same time, every year, tens of thousands of eastern European migrants arrive without jobs. Thousands of them arrive with next to nothing. These lives matter, even if they only tell a small part of a huge story.
For my new VICE.com film Undercover Migrant, I decided to follow them, using my eastern European languages from my childhood, into a London underworld of fetid doss houses, beggar gangs, and illegal touting spots where a labourer’s daily wage is one portion of chicken and chips.
We shot the film consecutively: day-by-day, as if I really had just arrived. I started at the beginning, at Victoria Coach Station with nothing.
Romanian is the rough sleeper’s language here. This is where I met Ionut and Lucian, two Roma beggars from Romania. They had just arrived. They could hardly comprehend the wealth now surrounding them: super-cars and icing sugar mansions.
After scavenging for cardboard, the one essential you need to bed down outside; we found a spot down in the tunnels under Hyde Park Corner. As we fell asleep, the boys kept talking about the Queen, and how they wanted to sleep in Buckingham Palace above – “for just one night” – to see what this fairytale was like. Why did this Queen allow us to sleep like this?
The worst-off migrants often spend their first nights like this – on the street. Today the majority of London’s 7,500 street sleepers are migrants, and a third of them are eastern European. Squats and doorsteps tend to divide into “English” and “Polish” zones. There are frequent fights.
How do you get into work if you arrive with nothing? No money or means, no proper address – and no proper address means no National Insurance number. This is why many head immediately to the illegal touting spots that mushroom outside the hardware stores along the North Circular ring road and the edge of London.
So, waking up on the street, this is where I went to next. Touting for work undercover, the lowest wage I ever saw here was one chicken and chips for a whole day’s work. All day, exploitative recruiters drift in and out looking for labour – without insurance, or minimum wage.
There is no way anyone living off the touting spots can afford their own room. This is why the next step up from the street is a doss house. These are pretty easy to find. These are where crooked landlords are cramming as many as they can into overcrowded, illegal, cheap rooms. Undercover, the worst doss house I ever lived in was 15 shoved into three rooms. They shared beds, and one night worker time-shared a bunk in the day.
How common is this? In 2015, the ONS estimated that there were 209,000 jobs in the country paying less than minimum wage. Yet the government has prosecuted only three firms for paying less than minimum wage since 2014. Little surprise the touting spots thrive.
I found my doss house the same way everyone else does: online. Romanians, Poles, Lithuanians – the main communities migrating here each have web portals where the migrant can find all the numbers they need. These are some of the busiest classified sites in London. There are mobiles for forklift truck lessons. There are mobiles for bosses after tillers. And there are numbers for shared rooms.
You can’t call up in English and get an answer. You can’t call up in accented Romanian and get an answer either. They hang up immediately: police. To infiltrate, I posed as a Ukrainian laborer, with a Romanian-born friend taking the lead. We were both here looking for work.
Doss house are not just a Romanian story. One LSE study estimates that 40 per cent of immigrants to London from poorer countries in the 2000s have been accommodated through “an increase in persons per room”. For thousands of migrants, these damp rooms smelling of mildew are where the bright, naïve, hopes of Victoria Coach Station come to die.
We found the numbers of half a dozen doss houses in Ilford, deep in east London, and settled into the first one we found. Nobody was working in the house. They were heading out for work at the touting spot everyday and mostly returning emptyhanded. It didn’t take long for one labourer in the house to tell us this place “is like Rahova” – the name of Romania’s most infamous prison. A name that, in Romanian, rings of hopelessness.
There’s a conspiracy theory that migrants are jumping on buses in Warsaw and Bucharest, all experts on the A to Z of our benefits system, here to live the life of Riley in our council estates. But from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met this couldn’t be further from the truth. Britain’s worst-off migrants don’t know their rights. And they are being exploited. These are our most vulnerable.
In the new VICE documentary Undercover Migrant, journalist and author of This Is London Ben Judah walks in the footsteps of EU migrants and goes undercover to unearth the conditions newcomers are up against in Brexit Britain. Watch the full-length film now on VICE.com.