Polish work gangs in Britain

This is the summary of a collectively revised discussion paper including fact briefing on the Crewe Polish migrant worker scandal and its possible solution, written by Martin Kraemer after helping out in translating between Crewe unionists and Polish migrant workers, June 2005

In the last months, T & G Union has evolved a campaign to unionise the workforce of a very aggressive convenience food company, Grampians Country Food Group. This group controls around 50 percent of the British Convenience food sector. It puts tough price pressure and logistic on suppliers and is itself submitted to significant pressure form the supermarket chains. It sticks to an aggressive anti-union policy. The plant at Winsford near Crewe in Cheshire with around five hundred manual workers was opened in autumn 2004. In the course of campaigning for independent trade union representation the T&G Union came across the preparative moves of what appears to be a massive operation aiming to replace contracted (mainly British workers) with temporary agency-driven staff from Eastern Europe, the Baltic Republics, Spain and Portugal, a clear majority of them originating from Poland. Within the last months entire factories have been cleaned of contracted workers and seem to be taken over by agency-controlled migrant labour.

According to T&G research a 300 workers Grampian plant is already operating on a Poles-only basis. The convenience food sector could actually head towards a curious situation of negative racism in its employment policy. Polish work gangs are organised in groups of 5 to 15, mainly around 9 people, often mixed male and female, which are mainly housed in one place and bussed to and out of work with minibuses operated by their agency. Every worker is stopped 12 pounds out of her or his net wages declared on the wage slip for transport. Such stoppage is seriously overpriced, illegal and most probably linked to tax fraud by the agency. Of this society, the workers see very little. They were clearly impressed to learn that British unions actually take an interest in them. Polish workers work much longer than their British workmates. They earn only half of the British manual workers’ wage of about 7 pounds an hour. The official minimum wage has risen to 4.85 pounds in October 2004 and to just a little over 5 pounds in 2005. However, the minimum wage only appears in a contract between the ”Consistant Group” and a Polish sub-contractor, as being paid to the sub-contractor. The Sub-contractor then makes its own deductions before paying out its workers. Hardly any worker wants to stay in England under such conditions. Living costs are high and food alone will use up a lot of the money which was to go in savings for providing consistency, funds for losses on rent, insurance, resources to look for new jobs in Poland after a break in the working biography there. The only option for workers staying in Britain is to change the site of exploitation to ”something decent at least” or stabilise their working relation with a direct contract. Both does not seem to happen, about 10 workers interviewed closer in direct conversations could not name a single success story they heard of in and around Crewe. This climate and the threat of additional costs for an individual return (a peak time ticket Crewe-London can eat up a monthly Polish wage) can coax workers into continuing the working relation with Grampian’s agents even if sound reason and sober calculation is against it.

In effect, Polish workers in Britain have hardly any material benefit from their sacrifice of home and personal life. They are being exploited in the genuine modes as established by Polish capitalism in their home country. The costs of individual return and the shame of coming back from England with nothing are the decisive psychological differential on which agents capitalise to the full extent possible. Even when working double hours as compared to their British colleagues, they do not get the possibility to earn as much as them. This adds to a peculiar hierarchy, in which for example on the meat cutting assembly line professional protective gloves are rare and only to be obtained by certain workers.

”If we would work 40 hours a week, we could all go home at once, we would not make any money here, just losses,” says X. (name known to the author) among general approbation. The overall working week for Polish workers at Grampians varies between 70 to 80 hours according to their accounts. Work is ordered on extremely short notice. A work gang would receive a telephone call around 10 o’clock at night that is when the last worker of the gang comes home from late shift. This telephone call would tell them who was to arrive at what time the next day. The start of work could thus be put at 6 o’clock, only 8 hours in advance. Free days are never enjoyed by a gang as a whole. Bank holidays, such as Easter holidays, are treated by Grampian workforce logistics just as normal working days. The contract between ”Consistant Group” and a Polish sub-contractor, forwarded to a contracted worker on the 20th of October 2004 to serve as a ”example” and justify pressure on workers as a direct result of pressure on the sub-contractors states explicitly under 15.4 that there is no right to claim paid holidays and any holiday is to be seen as a favour granted by the company. The rare free days granted for individual workers seem to be rotating on purpose and leaving only leaving individual workers in the house on purpose. The housing documents we could secure clearly forbid any party or joint social event in the house. They threat with immediate extraditement ”to London” when: any person other than the agencies officers enter the house, in the case of a social invitation, the worker and the invited will both make the journey ”to London”( in practice, they are thrown out of the minibus at a distant highway). One place we visited does not even have a bell to ring.

You have to make yourself understood to the workers upstairs by shouting through the letterbox. As soon as a neighbour or a police involvement is recorded (music, social events, alleged drug incidents), the agency announces to victimise the entire group of lodgers housed in the location, firing them from work and evicting them from their house on immediate notice. Regulation of this type has to be signed by the workers on moving in. The relevant document as been typed down with incredible lack of care for spelling or punctuation, but it exceeds incredible care on the side of the inmates. While a so called Michael, not giving his entire name and not signing himself represents the ”Consistant Group” of the employers, the migrant workers have to spell out their entire name in print and sign that they understood and comply with the regulation. Such paternalistic relations seem to be a foundation element of the contracting system.

Workers are terrorized by stoppages, ie. money deducted from their pay envelopes. The only official stoppage is around 60 pounds weekly for housing, a sum obtained e.g. from all 9 workers in a two-bedroom house officially equipped for 7. So this group pays actually more than 2000 pounds a month for the house. Grampian officials are said to have invested in housing property because this is a very lucrative business when linked so closely to the workplace. Besides the official hosing stoppage, there are unofficial stoppages which are not tax recorded. The group of 9 workers in one house is being deducted more than 360 pounds a month for so-called ”carpet cleaning”. Some of them have been in the house for over half a year and they have never seen a carpet being cleaned. In fact, the stoppage would provide for entirely new carpeting in the house every week. The places are kept remarkably tidy and clean however. Even though no cupboards are provided and the place is in fact very crowded. There is very strict regulation not to smoke in the sleeping rooms, but the company forces workers to sleep on the floor in the smoking room. The excessive tidiness might be linked to the constant thread that a cleaning firm will be called into the house and their price be stopped from the wages as soon as the condition of the place does not correspond to the expectation of the so-called agent’s ”supervisor”. In spite of nearly no convenience being facilitated in the houses (no television, no cupboards, only most basic kitchen equipment, the company forces each worker to pay a 300 pounds deposit which represents the wages you can earn in the Polish countryside in no less than 3 months. As applies to the payment of the first two weeks, which is generally not handed over by the company, workers see the chance of getting these sums back as very minimal.

A very serious issue raised by workers is the fact that they are systematically deprived of their passport and identity cards. They are equally not handed out their permission by the home office to work in Britain. For a lot of workers it is unclear whether this permission has actually been obtained. Therefore they cannot be sure of being in a legal working relationship which makes them very cautious in contacts with British institutions or the option to search different employment. Medical treatment has been denied to X. (name known to the author), a Polish worker after he suffered serious health problems at work. When he asked to be allowed to see a doctor, he was told that this is ”his problem”. He did not get leave from work and understood that he cannot see a Doctor.

Nevertheless each Pole is being stopped more than 4 pounds weekly out of her or his wage for National health insurance. Younger workers who are more familiar with the internet have found out that they can download the forms for getting work permission in Britain from the Home office website and apply individually. Such an option would be preferred by all workers we asked, but they would not be very confident in being able to follow up this process to a successful end. Workers have taken the initiative to tackle the awkward situation of being in a foreign country without documents to identify themselves. When calling the agency, they were told, these documents have been sent back to the solicitors. Nobody would say why. Dealing with British authorities would need some confidence in language skills. The informal offer by Cathleen and Neil Clarke to provide amateur language courses have been greeted with enthusiasm.

Though workers are forced to do 80-hours work weeks, they have a quite vivid sense of taking the initiative. After explaining some essentials of British ”fighting back” trade unionism, the first question for the T & G activists was characteristically ”How can we (the Polish migrant workers) help you (in your cause)?” To be honest, this was what we least expected and we even might have had a slight tendency to think that we had come to help them.

In the past months, Polish migrant workers in Crewe have been trying to challenge the regime of informal control of their entire life in Britain in some dramatic individual clashes. Characteristically though, every escalation has been won by the agents. Maciek complained with a friend about sums missing in his wage envelope (this is claimed to be a general phenomena). In the course of the argument, Maciek was driven to an unknown highway and kicked out of the minibus. His colleague managed to stay in the plant. Polish workers related the story with suspicion towards certain colleagues who would be able to furnish details of the two contesting workers to the management and thus allow them to split their case to their favour. In a more dramatic development a Polish woman signed off from work and housing, realising the ever-present temptation of all those caught in the treadmill. Her effort of getting hold of her housing deposit of three week’s wages took her a long time and lengthy paperwork to be read and signed. In the meantime, the agency would empty the fridge in her house of her belongings and kick it on the street together with her personal luggage. Scandalised by this inversion of any notion of leave notice, she convinced the police to send two officers on the scene. It turned out that a woman officer of the agency has close relations with a higher-ranking police officer in Crewe. So when she called another patrol against the first it turned out, that, in the Polish workers’ words ”the workers’ patrol turned down and left, so additionally to her eviction, she had to face accusations and trouble with the police”. This incident has resulted in migrant workers taking caution not to contact the police at all, even in the case of obvious maltreatment.

Up to now migrant workers get thrown out of work and out of their houses on immediate notice and driven to a highway. In the case for Maciek reported by his workmate this happened for his demanding the pay he was entitled to but which was not paid. In general the first two weeks’ wages as well as the 300 pounds deposit it for the accommodation are seen as not retrievable by the migrant workers themselves.

Strategic considerations, open questions
How is the contracting chain organised? Who can be hold responsible for what? How can we collect evidence, researching in Britain and Poland alike to link the producers in Britain to the migrant workers trade chain extending into the Polish province? We know about a key role of the Dutch multinational ”Convenience Food Systems” with currently two offices in Poland (CFS Polska, see researched details below). The main contracting agency for Poles in the Crewe region is at Wrexham. They have subcontracted Polish agents from different regions (Wielkopolska, Malopolska, Kielce, see address below). Most of the Polish workers however state that they have been dragged into the agency chain by ”friends” and personally known people. False promises are evidently made on the last two levels of the chain who are most involved in getting workers over to England. Once they are there, they face the harsh conditions and the patronising disciplinary power of the so called ”Consistant Group”, for the Winsford workers they are based at Wrexham (address see below). Grampian is on very good working relations with the agents organising the Polish workforce. On request by Polish workers, they have been informed that the agents would not interfere with Grampian directly contracting migrant workers they would like to secure for their production for a longer period of time. This form of cherry-picking by the factory, creating a competition for ”advancement” within migrant workers has not yet started among the Polish workforce. Up to now, only Spanish migrant workers have been contracted by the manufacture to get out of their agents’ patronising.

Individual bargaining is involved in every stage of the supply chain of new migrant workers. In Poland this involves seriously false promises, in Britain the threat to send off workers back to Poland without any savings earned in England. Any effort to collectivise this bargaining on the Polish supply side could seriously shift the power balance around a Grampian plant. Within the coming months, Grampian will not only need to replace conscious migrant workers but also access new dimensions of supply for replacing British staff. Campaigning to increase the price of migrant labour supplies would most effectively target British gangmasters on the basis of the new licensing regulations and Polish sub-contractors in Poland alike.

Contact: Martin_Kraemer@gmx.net

From prol-position news #4, 12/2005

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Nov 10 2006 11:17


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