By Phil Miller. Names have been changed to protect identities.
Sitting in her house directly under the Heathrow flight path, Mary begins to tell me her story. Her voice is often drowned out by the planes taking off and landing, ferrying tourists and business travellers around the globe. But Mary’s next flight could be her deportation.
Mary is an asylum-seeker, fleeing persecution, in need of safety. The British government, which promised to protect her, is taking an extremely long time to decide her case. Until then, Mary is left in limbo.She is expected to survive on £35 worth of food vouchers each week, and live in this cramped house with other asylum-seekers. And wait. Wait for the Home Office and the courts to decide her future. She is not allowed to work as that would be illegal.But Mary has worked in England before, cleaning dishes in a kitchen for £1 an hour. Her employer was the Home Office, and its commercial partner Serco. That was legal. This happened when Mary was held at Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre for female asylum-seekers in Bedfordshire.Working Illegally Trailer from Standoff Films on Vimeo.It is a cruel irony that continues to this day. Asylum-seekers can work while they are in detention, for a pittance, but not when they are released. Mary wants it to stop. She insists that asylum-seekers must be allowed to work outside detention, as well as being properly paid for any work they do while detained. And her experience of working
Yarl’s Wood is a compelling reason why.“In Yarl’s Wood I was working as a cleaner in the kitchen, washing the dishes, the plates and cooking pots. I was working three hours and they were paying me £3… It’s a big job that you could do out here for five hours, but in Yarl’s Wood it has to be done in three hours.”There are hundreds of people detained in Yarl’s Wood, meaning that there are a lot of dirty dishes after each meal. But why did Mary need to work, especially for such low pay, if her board and lodging was being provided? “Sometimes we detainees are desperate to do the job, because for example I was very stranded. I didn’t have a lawyer so I had to buy credit to start calling these companies to see if I can find a lawyer.”As well as needing phone credit to get legal advice, asylum-seekers must also purchase basic clothing. Mary says: “When I was detained I only had the clothes I was wearing. So at Yarl’s Wood they gave me one pair of jogging bottoms, two pairs of knickers, one bra and a toothbrush and a toothpaste. I was there for five months so it was not enough. So the money I got from working I used to buy clothes from this ‘market’ they had there.” Although the clothes at this market are donated to Yarl’s Wood by a local charity, the detainees are expected to pay for them.Many of the women detained also need to save some money in case they are deported, which remains a constant threat. Mary says: “I saw one lady who was about to be deported and she didn’t have any money. She couldn’t go back to her family because she was having a problem with them… So she desperately wanted to have that job so she could collect money to pay for a taxi, if she went back to her own country, to run away.”When Mary finally managed to get released, she was told: “you are not allowed to work or you will go to prison”. This was not an empty threat, according to Mary: “one of my friends went to prison before they brought her to Yarl’s Wood, so I asked her why she was in prison. She said they caught her working and arrested her in the workplace. From there they took her to prison and after her sentence they took her to Yarl’s Wood. Even still now she was working in Yarl’s Wood”.Mary’s message is clear. “We used to chat and say that we are still slaves. They say that there is no slavery but it is still going on in Yarl’s Wood … They should allow asylum-seekers to work … If I’m working then I’m paying tax. This is better than sitting here doing nothing … In detention it is better if they pay even £5, it is still below minimum wage. We used to say they are just using us, because if they paid someone to come in here… think how much they would have to pay them.”* * *
Employees who worked in detention centre kitchens used to be paid above the minimum wage, and were entitled to holiday pay, sick pay and a pension, according to former staff.
But after a few years, managers brought in detainees to do their jobs instead. Corporate Watch’s investigation into work done by detainees calculated the amount of money this practice saved the companies who run detention centres. In one month alone, detainees at Serco’s Yarl’s Wood and Colnbrook centres worked 9,311 hours, and were paid just £9,311. Paying the minimum wage of £6.31 an hour for that work would have cost nearly £50,000 extra.Serco told Corporate Watch it “refutes the implication that we have used residents to conduct work in place of officers at any of the IRCs [Immigration Removal Centres] that we manage and operate and thereby made a profit.” The Home Office said “This practice is not intended to substitute the work of trained staff.”But former staff say that using detainees to replace permanent employees is exactly what the government, and the companies that run detention centres, have done. Staff who worked in the kitchens over several years were given a monthly wage of £1,100 at Harmondsworth, and an annual salary of £13,500 at Serco’s Colnbrook. They peeled potatoes and prepared salads, washed the dishes and mopped the floor. Just like detainees do today, for £1 an hour. (A photo of a Serco contract is below.)When Harmondsworth was run by Kalyx, a Sodexho subsidiary, “they didn’t have any detainees working in there”, according to former staff. But in June 2009, an American company, the GEO Group, took over Harmondsworth. Things started to change. GEO is one of the two largest private prison firms in the US, where it is at the forefront of using inmates as cheap labour. According to former staff, when GEO took control of Harmondsworth: “They just got rid of the kitchen staff for no reason and they replaced it with detainees. How can they do that? If they make you redundant they can’t replace you with someone else.”While these changes were taking place, staff worked alongside detainees in the kitchen, briefly. The atmosphere was tense. “It was like hell in there … There were a lot of fights going on between the chefs and the detainees… one detainee got really angry because he was doing the rice, he was doing the potatoes, he was washing, he was peeling – that is a lot. And then the chef was asking him to do more. He lost his temper, swore and said ‘Look I can’t do all this job, you get paid £26K!’ It fell into a fight and got too violent, so he had to come out of the kitchen and we had to get somebody else, but it was always like that because it was too much what the detainees were doing – that should be the catering assistants job to do.”Sometimes, the chefs would cut corners too, former staff claim. “You know they get the frozen stuff in a box from 3663 [the frozen food delivery company], vegetables and chicken, and they don’t have much time to defrost it, so they’d put it on the floor and kick it with their leg and then put it into the water to make sure it’d be ready to use it, because frozen takes 24 hours but the chefs didn’t care because its not them that’s eating it.”There was certainly a lot of work to do. “We got lists of how many officers and detainees we fed … it was around 560 to 627 detainees to feed … It’s a lot of work because if you look at the four catering assistant jobs [that they scrapped], they were doing 10 hour shifts. Detainees are doing our job. It’s not changed or anything like that … Everyone should be treated fair, it doesn’t matter what country they come from.”
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Lisa had just been released from Yarl’s Wood when I met her. The memories of her detention were still very raw. Despite all the difficulties she encountered there, the working conditions are something she is keen to talk about.
At Yarl’s Wood, Lisa says the detainees “work alongside the permanent staff, which makes it so bad because they know that the permanent staff are paid their normal wages and the detainees are paid £1 or £1.50, which is so bad for me even thinking of it.” Although Serco insist the detainees do not replace the work of permanent staff, Lisa says: “The permanent staff are doing exactly the same job as the detainees … Sometimes they even do nothing but stand and supervise”.“The permanent staff know fully some people have been detained for working illegally. Giving them a job for £1 is just like child labour in China. When you work beside permanent staff who are paid that right amount, and you know they do nothing except stand and watch you doing most of the work, you are being exploited. You feel inside you that it is so difficult to even air out your feeling, because even if you raise an issue no one looks at you, it goes nowhere. They tell you they will solve the issue but either you have a warning that you will lose your job if you complain about the working conditions or they threaten to disperse you and move you to another unit. One person working was given a verbal and written warning just for giving too much food to detainees.”When asked what is the worst job at Yarl’s Wood, Lisa at first found it hard to pinpoint just one: “Nearly every job is the worst job because of the amount which they are paid. But the worst one that I’ve come across is the washing of dishes, where detainees complain that the temperature in the area is too hot, the water is too hot, there are no windows, sometimes the machines break down and they have to clean all the dishes from every unit for an hour or two and they have to finish all of them, so sometimes they overwork themselves and some of them get ill.”Unlike the permanent staff, the detainee get no sick pay, holiday pay or pension. They just have to get on with it. Lisa recalls: “There is a lot of machinery, especially for those cleaning. The machinery is quite huge and there is a certain speed that the detainees have to be working at, with limited time and huge dishes and huge pots that they need to clean … Per shift, after breakfast, lunch and supper, there could be about 5 detainees from each unit doing the dishes for 400 detainees.”Lisa’s description of life in Yarl’s Wood is a far cry from that painted by the Home Office and some charities, which claim that the jobs for detainees are just a way to keep idle minds occupied. For example, Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, responded to Corporate Watch’s investigation with a letter
the Guardian, that said “The opportunity for detainees and prisoners to take part in work and other purposeful activity in any form of detention is widely recognised as essential to their mental and emotional wellbeing and an important means of reducing the likelihood of self-harm … It would not be in the interests of detainees if the work that was already available for those who wished to do it was reduced”However, at least Hardwick finally conceded that detainees should be paid more than £1 an hour. “What is required is better-quality and better-paid work available for all detainees on a voluntary basis”, he wrote in his letter. This is a change from the Prison Inspectorate’s position of 2012, where in its report on the G4S-run Tinsley House detention centre, inspectors described the detainee pay of £1 an hour as “fair and equitable.”The companies insist that they are prevented from paying detainees more by a Home Office diktat. G4S has told Corporate Watch that “the Detention Services Order for the provision of paid work opportunities provides the standard to which we must comply, including pay rates”. This Order fixes detainee pay rates at £1 or £1.25 an hour. This might sound like a convenient excuse for the companies, but they took Home Office contracts to run detention centres knowing that these were the rules, and so chose to be an employer that pays workers £1 an hour.The Labour party, which introduced those rules, is now campaigning with an election pledge to “increase the fines for firms paying below the National Minimum Wage”, as well as making it a “criminal offence to undercut pay or conditions by exploiting migrant workers.” So does this mean change is on the horizon? Labour party leader Ed Miliband said: “This new criminal offence will provide protection to everyone. It will help ensure that, when immigrants work here, they do not face exploitation themselves and rogue employers are stopped from undercutting the terms and conditions of everyone else.” It is unclear however if Miliband’s concept of ‘rogue employers’ includes the Home Office and its private contractors. And any new legislation would need to amend Section 59 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, another New Labour law, which states: “A detained person does not qualify for the national minimum wage in respect of work which he does in pursuance of removal centre rules.”In 2015, Corporate Watch will hold a series of workshops across the UK about jobs in detention centres, with screenings of the forthcoming Stand Off Films documentary Working Illegally. Sign up to our news update email list for more details.