03. 03. 2006. 22:23

George Szirtes' blog - day four

A cautionary tale

L had been an unemployed steel worker from Miskolc and had been attracted by an advertisement in a major Hungarian newspaper offering work in England. He went to an office in Budapest, was told about the job and presented with a contract that he signed. The contract was in English, not in Hungarian and he signed without understanding it.

After the late night a decent sleep before going in to the art college for a few tutorials this morning, a lunchtime session of the Open Writers Workshop – a free session open to anyone who cares to come, not just students but people in town – where we spend an hour talking about a single poem or short piece of prose by a member of the group, followed by a talk to another class by a novelist friend on agents and editors and the business of getting published, then a brief crisis meeting about a clash between two students, and so home again.

I realize I have not yet done something I promised G.G. to do, which is to send him details of a case I became involved in last year. A day or two after winning the Eliot Prize, that meant a couple of television and radio appearances, I was rung by the regional branch of the BBC and asked to come in. At first I thought it was more about the prize but it was something quite different.

A Hungarian worker who spoke very bad English had approached them with a story about being exploited by an agency. He wanted to do an exposé interview (the figure in silhouette, the voice spoken by an actor) and the BBC needed an interpreter. I agreed to do it. It is a short walk from the college to the BBC studios. I immediately spotted the man. He was in poor clothes, looked very nervous and was waiting by the entrance. I shall not use real names here so will refer to people by initials. L had been an unemployed steel worker from Miskolc and had been attracted by an advertisement in a major Hungarian newspaper offering work in England. He went to an office in Budapest, was told about the job and presented with a contract that he signed. The contract was in English, not in Hungarian and he signed without understanding it.

When he got to England, to a place near Norwich, he found that the terms of his contract allowed the employment agency to make a big regular deduction from his wages. He also had to pay them for the accommodation and transport they provided which meant that he was actually living on about £35 a week, which is less than one-sixth of poverty level. He could hardly afford to eat. His actual work was in a packing factory that treated him acceptably. But the employment agency took and lost his passport. There were some hard men / enforcers around to keep the workers in order. L was so frightened by them that he changed his mind about the interview at the last minute.

So I took him to a lawyer instead. It turned out that the workers included some forty Hungarians, sometimes many more, as well as Poles and some Portuguese and Roma. They were all working in similar conditions. Soon L introduced me to five other Hungarians who worked there, none of whom spoke any English, and I took them all to the lawyer, interpreting for them, meeting them a number of times.  On one occasion I was warned by one of the agency’s enforcers to mind what I said.

Nothing came of the visits to the lawyer because the workers grew very frightened and disappeared to London. L stayed for a few days more then decided to go back to Hungary. First he asked me to find him safe lodgings. I succeeded in that. The next day we did the BBC interview and the day after that L flew back to Hungary, with some financial help from the very decent radio producer.

The equally helpful young female lawyer had explained that there was nothing ordinary law could do because the men had signed the contract that laid out the conditions clearly enough in English. They could however go to an industrial tribunal because the contract should have been translated into Hungarian. This would be small reward for their trouble and would take time. The men understood this, and being afraid, decided not to take the chance of waiting and possibly being attacked.

The employment agency goes on recruiting in Hungary. Two weeks ago someone else working for the same company came to see me – completely by chance, only because a friend had seen my name in a newspaper and found out my address. Nothing had changed there. The conditions were exactly the same.

Desperate, unemployed people should be careful and insist that all contracts be translated into Hungarian before they take employment abroad. All over Europe there are groups of migrant workers, living on very little, often being badly exploited like this.

George Szirtes' website

Tags: A cautionary tale