Immigrant workers form 'US-style underclass'

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Britain's main cities are developing American-style populations of cash-in-hand foreign workers living outside mainstream society, evidence gathered by the biggest immigration support groups has revealed.

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, warns that London could mirror cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, where populations of so-called "wetbacks" live permanently but without civil rights. His comments follow the arrest and deportation in April of 118 people allegedly working illegally in Southampton.

Mr Hardwick warns that Britain could face increasing social problems in future generations, with children growing up with no access to education or health services.

Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said Britain risked creating an "underclass" of foreign workers in the cleaning, catering and other service industries. "If people have been offered a job they should be given permission to stay here. If they are not allowed to be part of the system they will be exploited," he said.

The acknowledgement by the heads of Britain's biggest immigrant support groups that there are communities of unauthorised workers is an important development in the often polarised immigration debate.

Mr Hardwick said the presence of low-paid foreign workers was obvious to anyone living in Britain's biggest cities. He said: "They clean our offices, drive our mini-cabs, serve us cappuccino and build our office blocks. Yet we simply pretend not to notice them. They have no rights, live in poverty and it's like they are invisible."

He said that British employers clearly required the services of such workers and that to pay them "cash in hand" with no employment rights was "hypocritical".

Mr Hardwick said: "Look at the United States where there are very large numbers of people in the southern American states living outside the system. That has created some of the tensions that one has seen in the American cities."

Unless the British Government introduced changes to policy to legitimise the status of the cash-in-hand workers, children might grow up without going to school, he said.

Mr Hardwick's warning follows an acknowledgement last weekend by David Blunkett, the new Home Secretary, that the presence of low-paid illegal workers risked undermining Britain's minimum wage. He said: "Connecting the work permit system with the needs of the economy will pull the rug on the gangmasters and provide a controlled but legal route for people who seek work to fill Britain's skill shortages."

Mr Hardwick said he had recently visited the Red Cross centre at Sangatte, near Calais, where many people based themselves before trying to enter Britain.

"Everyone in Sangatte was pretty cheerful because they knew they would be able to have a new life and would be able to find work once they got across the Channel," he said.

Mr Hardwick said the "invisible communities" were a mixture of people who had evaded immigration controls and those who had been refused asylum but not removed.

He said it was not economically viable for immigration staff to try to remove failed asylum applicants to some countries, such as Iran and Iraq, and that Britain should consider following France in allowing such people a basic-level "tolerated status", which permitted them to work.