Monday, 23 June 2008

Chinese Whispers: The true story behind Britain's hidden army of labour, by Hsiao-Hung Pai

Chinese Whispers: The true story behind Britain's hidden army of labour, by Hsiao-Hung Pai

“If you don’t want to do the whole session, you can just buy parts. Three pounds for touching her face and hair, £10 for touching the upper part of her body, £20 for fondling the lower part of her body. Would you like a cup of tea first ?

- a Chinese female housekeeper at a brothel in Cheam , Surrey- February 2007

From brothels in London to a lettuce farm in Sussex and Chinatown kitchens, this courageous and heart-wrenching book documents the super-exploited lives of the army of undocumented Chinese workers living in the UK. Hsiao-Hung Pai goes undercover for the Guardian to expose the secret hell of fear and sweat that exists in a subterranean twilight world .Everywhere she goes, Hsiao-Hung Pai finds that illegality itself multiplies the misery and that all attempts to improve their lives are doomed as ‘illegal’s’ move from one terrible job to another.

Gangs attack "massage" joints with impunity robbing undocumented workers who have been paid in cash, dishing out example beatings to workers who have done nothing wrong. Waiters earn far below the minimum wage, and invisible labourers fall sick in hellish factories. Exorbitant fees are charged for overcrowded accommodation and essential documentation . Amidst all of this Britain still spurns the UN convention that aims to protect all migrant workers.

Britain is one of the many developed countries that has so far failed to sign up to the 1990 UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which states that human rights and certain minimum standards of welfare should be extended to all migrant workers, regardless of their legal status. In Britain, "illegals", as the tabloids call them, have no rights. Contacting the police or accessing the health service are not options as this means deportation-a fact that is used routinely by the gang-masters and agencies. Blocks on giving agency workers equal rights compound the misery.

Cockle pickers drown, people die from exhaustion after working 24-hour shifts on production lines, and families back in china are forced to take on more debt once the existing debt is paid off .Families receive no compensation and the chains of organizations supporting the trade in cheap labour continue to flourish. There's political capital to be made prosecuting gangs bringing illegal immigrants into Britain, but very little to be had protecting the rights of those "illegal’s" once they are here. In fact the expose reveals a carve up between gangmasters , agencies, factories and the government to super- exploit illegal immigrants using the fear of deportation at any time to keep it all in place.

Hsiao-Hung Pai also explains why so many Chinese workers risk their lives to work in Britain, having been driven out of China by economic reforms implemented since it joined the World Trade Organization (nearly five million workers in state-owned factories were made redundant between 2001-2006 in the north-eastern provinces alone); and demonstrates the ways British consumers benefit from their labour.

The book humanizes the workers by relating their own personal stories throughout and there is a concluding chapter on the role of the unions and what direction campaigning organizations ought to take making ‘Chinese Whispers’ an essential book for both trade union activists and anti-sweatshop campaigners .

Peter Burton

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