I Posed as a Romanian Day Labourer to Learn About Migrant Working Conditions in Britain

I spent my days outside a car park with people who paid to live in squats and were earning £30 a day.

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26 August 2015, 2:20pm

Romanian workers having their names taken. All photos by Christopher Bethell.

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania

This spring, whilst researching a documentary for Channel 5, I spent time undercover as a Romanian migrant worker at a builders warehouse car park where day labourers attempt to find work.

My friend and I arrived at the spot around 7AM the first time – I'd heard that the earlier you show up, the more likely you are to get work. Being the only woman standing there, all eyes were on me. Immediately, people started asking questions. They were confused as to what I was doing – they thought I should be at home playing housewife, or working as a maid in some hotel where. "it's warm, instead of out here in the cold." I told them that me and my Romanian friend were married and I was trying to help him find a job.

At a guess, there were about 50 people looking for a job that day – men of all ages stood divided in small groups between the sidewalk and the different entrances to the parking lot. Some people told me that a normal day of work paid between £50 and £60. £60 amounts to about eight hours of minimum wage but these guys were working much longer days than that. Also, you'd only get that much if you were skilled worker. Those without any sort of formal training got a paid a lot less – some as little as £30 a day.

"Even £50 a day is nothing. A pack of smokes, a few beers, something to eat, a call-girl and, before you know it, they're gone," a young worker told me.

These days the workers aren't allowed to stand in the car park.

I wondered how these people dared to get into a car with complete strangers? How did they know where the construction site was located or how they'd get paid? Thumbing for work seemed almost identical to regular hitchhiking in that both parties need to just trust that the other one is decent.

I was confused as to why Romanians need to resort to this sort of thing when they are fully entitled to work in the UK as EU citizens. Couldn't they just get legal jobs and benefit from all the various labour rights?

According to Mihai, a 40-year-old veteran of the underground job market, some of those looking for work were ex-convicts trying to keep a low profile and not everyone necessarily had their "papers in order." Meaning they don't have any employment record books. The kind of workers that fell into this category seemed stand much further away from the car park, in the bus station down the road.

But why were those with nothing to hide standing by the car park when they could simply apply for jobs through work agencies? After all, manual labour is highly sought after in the UK. In 2014, the construction industry contributed over £90 billion to the economy and employed just short of 3 million people.

Workers having their permits checked.

"It's the language barrier," I was told. The fact that many of these people don't understand much English makes it much harder for them to get hired. Some of these people have come directly from Romania, others from places with large Romanian communities – Spain and Italy, for example – and barely know another language.

Whilst mingling with the guys, I overheard one of them being offered some work up north. The man with the job said he could give the worker a ride up there but he'd need to take the train back.

"Jesus Christ, I'm not going then. The train is expensive," he told him.

Some workers stood further away from the car park than others.

Another lad told me that he'd just been offered two days of work in a suburb outside of town but had no idea how to get there. The employer tried to explain the way but it wasn't enough to convince him.

"All streets look the same over here," he said.

Standing by the car park seemed to be all about waiting. A lot of vans passed by but few stopped. A lot of drivers probably feel a little uneasy approaching a sea of people screaming for work. In the six hours I'd spent there, only a handful of people actually got picked up. Some would help build a fence, some lay bricks, others help take down a building. And so on.

The next day, there were fewer people hanging out in the parking lot. Thirty, at a guess. Two police vans showed up and cops got out to question people, so most of the workers quickly dispersed. When I asked the police why they were there, I was told that someone had called to say that some of the Romanians had started a fight in the store.

At about noon, an SUV pulled up. The guy driving it spoke English quite fluently with a foreign accent. He said he had three jobs at a carwash in Borehamwood and was wondering if anyone was interested. If they were, he'd be back to pick them up the following day. Chatting to him for a bit, he told me that he only employed foreigners. Up until recently he had been able to house them all, too. He paid people £40 a day and allowed them to keep their tips. On a good day they could come out with about £50 – if they were lucky.

As he drove off in his expensive car, I was told that working at a carwash was too much hassle – you had to stand outside in the cold all day long. There wasn't time to eat and all the tips went to senior employees who never shared them. Another young man said he actually wouldn't mind working there. £40 was a decent wage – he'd keep £20 and send the other £20 home to his wife. Something he hoped would make her happy. Besides, spending a day in the cold was basically what he was doing now. He said he was currently sleeping in a forest nearby.

A lot of the people that I talked to shared houses with other Romanian immigrants. It wasn't at all uncommon to have 12 housemates. Having your own room was a luxury that few of them knew. Cristi, from Timiș in West Romania, told me that he even shares a bed with another labourer. He pays £200 a month for his half of the mattress. Romeo, a man from the city of Pitești, lives in a squat close-by. It's a large house so he's lucky enough to have his own room. But even though it's a squat, he is being charged £75 a month to live there.

A man pulled up in a Mercedes offering a week's worth of work washing a brick wall. He immediately approached me because it was a job that required a "woman's finesse." I said I'd do it if he gave me £60 pounds a day, but he laughed in my face and told me, "That's what I'd pay for a legit worker from an agency."

I blinked twice and asked, "Am I not a legit worker?"

He sighed and said, "Don't do this to me. I'll pay you in cash and you'll be guaranteed a full week of work. I'll give you £30 a day." We never got around to finishing the deal because the store's security guard came and told us to piss off.

A few days later, two undercover cops swung by. They flashed their badges and asked for everyone's ID. Just as I presented mine, one of the workers started running. A cop in uniform cut him off and grabbed him. Out of nowhere, four squad cars swung round the corner and the police started rounding everyone up. Realising I couldn't keep my cover, I took one aside and explained to them that I was a journalist. He told me that the council had received a lot of complaints from locals and the police had been asked to "clear the area up." I was baffled; surely they weren't doing anything wrong?

"They disturb both the locals and the store's owners," he told me. "The council doesn't want them here."

Truth is, they can't do anything about them. They're not really doing anything wrong by standing there. The police's actions seemed like simple intimidation to me. Sure, they can be accused of contributing to the underground job market but that's extremely hard to prove. To find out whether a person declares their income or not is an entirely different investigation and one that's out of the police's hands.

The reason these workers keep coming here every day is obvious – they want to make a living. But, more than that, they want to socialise with people they can relate to. Standing on the sidewalk, talking, exchanging gossip and joking is what they're there for.

During the time I spent there, I was kindly offered phone numbers for work agencies, people who might have jobs on offer, a firm to help you get your papers in order and another one that helps you obtain a work safety card for construction sites. Maybe they pitied me for standing there in the cold, wind and rain – something they didn't complain about. Actually, they never complained. All they wanted was enough money for some warm food when they got home.

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