For the past year, FLEX has been collaborating with workers in the cleaning, catering and hospitality sectors to understand what issues people are experiencing at work and what change is needed. Peer researchers, the workers taking part in this project, are central to every aspect of the research from deciding what questions to ask in interviews and surveys to collecting data by interviewing their peers. We are also working together to identify recommendations for different actors – workers, employers, the UK government and others – and to form a plan of action for positive change.
To celebrate International Migrants Day on December 18th, this week FLEX will publish four new blogs written by our peer researchers, in which they share their experiences as migrant workers in the UK and their views on what is needed to ensure our workplaces are free from abuse and exploitation.
I was born in Bolivia and I grew up in Spain from the age of four. I studied in Spain until my bachelor’s degree and then decided to have a holiday to visit my mum in London. She had been working in London for three months, even though she didn’t speak English. I was like, “What are you doing there, you don’t speak any English, it’s going to be very difficult for you!”, but my mum is always growing herself. She wants to experience everything. She’s always been like that, reaching for another level, and another level and another level.
At the beginning it was very difficult. Because my mum doesn’t speak English, she was working in cleaning. She was living very far from the centre of London, so if she was working at six or seven in the morning, she had to wake up at five because it took an hour to go to the centre of London. It was difficult; she was working, and I wasn’t doing anything. During my first two or three weeks, I was lost here in London. I grew up with two brothers, so I’m used to always having someone by my side, always having company and never being alone. In London, I felt completely alone. Then I started studying at an English academy. It was very good there, the manager spoke Spanish, so she helped me a lot.
My first job in London was working in catering and events at a conference centre. I found it while I was working out at the gym. Someone came up to me, told me about the work and asked if I was interested. I wasn’t looking for a job, I just wanted to study, but I thought, “my mum is working, so why shouldn’t I work as well?”. I told him I didn’t have experience, I had never worked here, but he said they were going to help me. So, I went to the interview and, thank god, it was in Spanish and it went well. I worked there for about a year. The experience was really good. I improved my English a lot, listening and speaking, and I helped my mum a lot as well – she was working less. While I was working at the conference centre, I was also doing catering work for agencies, mostly in stadiums like Chelsea and Wembley, but also in hotels. It was very good.
My mum stayed in London for one year and then went back to Spain. I also went back to Spain for a year and then decided to come back to London. I now work in catering at the same time as studying for a master’s degree in Human Resource Management.
In the sector you work in, what are some of the issues you have experienced?
While working in catering, I noticed that appearance – how you look, how you dress, how you are, everything – is very important. Once, when I was working for one of the agencies, there were all kinds of people there, but one of them was a little bit fat. There was a big dinner and I think the manager didn’t like him. He was supposed to be with us serving the dinner, but she made him work back of house. It’s all about appearances; if you don’t have specific features, they put you in the back of the house, not front of the house. It’s obviously not very polite or fair.
What do you think needs to change for people to have a better experience at work?
My previous manager, she believed in equality; things should be the same for me and for you, not just good for one person. She was helpful. Once she left, things with my colleague were very different. Even if something is wrong or unfair, they don’t care. For me it’s not like this. It’s your job and you need to care about the job and about the company – you are the face of the company.
If you could give advice to yourself when you first arrived in the UK, what would it be?
I think for me, I should have known the law better, the rules for the job. Because I just got the job and that’s it, I didn’t even know what the basics were. I didn’t know anything, I just worked. For me, first you have to know all the rules. Don’t be afraid, just go, but you have to know the rules.
Also, be clever. I think some people have been playing me, changing things, for their benefit. When I first started in my current job I had permanent hours and everything was correct. Later, the ownership of the company changed, and I was without a contract for about a month. When I finally got my contract, it had been changed to zero hours and the conditions had changed as well. The owner opened a new shop and, though my previous contract had been for just one location, I then had to work wherever my manager told me to.
Find more information on FLEX’s participatory research here.
If you work in hospitality (e.g. catering, hotel housekeeping or as a kitchen porter) or the gig economy (e.g. as a courier or delivery driver) and would like to get involved in this project, please contact [email protected]
Participants in this blog series have chosen how they want to be named.