Tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans work in the United Kingdom illegally as seasonal farmhands, in fish-processing factories, on construction sites, in hotels, and the like. Such jobs are in great demand, and swindlers have taken full advantage. A reporter for the BBC recently infiltrated a group who fell victim to false promises of work in the U.K; bogus job mediators — some of them Czech — had been meeting their victims at British airports, taking hefty referral fees, giving contact details for phantom employers — and promptly disappearing, leaving the would-be job seekers stranded.
In the Czech Republic, many such victims had responded to advertisements promising affordable lodging and well-paid work, with no knowledge of the English language required. Such scams have become so prevalent that Jim Sheridan, a Labour MP from Scotland, has asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to launch an officially inquiry.
I spoke with Mr Sheridan and began by asking him about a bill he's sponsored to license and register gangmasters, site bosses who arrange for temporary crews of workers, with the aim of stopping the use — and abuse — of illegal workers.
"The basis of the Gangmasters Bill is to license the gangmasters in order that we know who they are, where they are, the conditions of the employment that they are engaging people in; and it was focused purely on the agricultural sector in Britain, where we have tangible evidence of illegal gangmasters operating in that industry."
RP: Are many of these illegal workers from new EU member states, like the Czech Republic?
"Yes. There are quite significant numbers, basically, from all over Europe. What these people were doing was bringing migrants workers in and paying them below the minimum wage; paying them peanuts, more or less, and not giving them proper accommodation; their health and safety was put at risk."
RP: The local service of the BBC here reported about these organized gangs that were fooling Czechs and Slovaks into thinking they had arranged work for them in the U.K. You were quoted as saying that you'd be getting in contact with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, specifically on the Czech and Slovak case. Is that still in the cards?
"Yes, I've raised it in the Chamber of Commons with the appropriate department; I've also written a personal letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair asking him to investigate the circumstances — more importantly, to identify which governmental department would be responsible for dealing with this issue."
RP: Within your district, or constituency, is there a large presence of workers from the new EU member states?
"Well, the difficulty we have is that many of these people have been brought in illegally; they are operating within the twilight world, so it's difficult to put a figure on it. What's important to understand is that we welcome migrant workers, many of whom have the skills that we need. But what we don't want is for them to come into this country and be exploited by gangsters; we want them to come in legally, and get jobs legally as well. What we don't want is for them to be exploited."
RP: The U.K., Ireland, and to a lesser degree, the Netherlands, opened up their borders to jobseekers from the new EU member states. So why is it that so many people are still going through these illegal side channels?
"Well, when someone promises you that if you pay them money they will fast-track you through the system, and more importantly, give you a quality job when you arrive there, you know, some people are somewhat vulnerable and susceptible to that kind of promise."
"The Gangmasters Licensing Bill that I'm responsible for introducing will become law this year. It's not only a problem in the agricultural sector; evidence is reaching us on a regular basis that this kind of bad practices are now moving into the construction industry and the service industry. So it's an issue that we have to address very quickly."
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