Portuguese workers 'are exploited by British firms'

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Portuguese migrants are being exploited by British firms which are employing cleaners, food packagers and waiters on the cheap, a report warns today.

Unscrupulous bosses are encouraging Portuguese workers to come to the UK and then paying them less than the market rate to work long hours in low-grade jobs, the research for the Trades Union Congress shows.

As European Union nationals, Portuguese migrants are legally entitled to work in the UK and up to 40,000 are thought to be employed here, largely in the South East and the Channel Islands. Because many of the workers have a poor grasp of English and their employment rights, the research says that dishonest employers have a licence to exploit.

Mistreatment includes workers who are hired and fired at will by employers, others who are paid less than British nationals and denied holiday or sick pay, and some who are employed on a series of casual contracts so they have no rights.

Union leaders are concerned that too many employers are getting away with exploitative practices and that an "underclass" of migrant workers is developing. Government plans to relax rules on the entry of economic migrants to help firms overcome labour shortages in Britain could make the problem worse, John Monks, the TUC general secretary, said.

"Although as EU nationals Portuguese workers are legally allowed to work in the UK, many are unaware of their rights, and as a result are being treated appallingly by employers keen to undercut their competitors by employing workers on the cheap," he said.

Portugal has a long history of exporting labour and between four and five million of its nationals are thought to have left to find jobs overseas.

The report highlights agricultural companies in the UK which employ gang labour, sandwich factories which use Portuguese migrants as cheap labour, and cleaning companies which do not register their staff for National Insurance.

Maria Varela, aged 21, arrived in Hampshire five months ago from Estoril, in Portugal, to work for a company which prepares salad for a high street retailer. She was recruited via an employment agency in Portugal, but was never given an employment contract and worked 12-hour days, sometimes for seven days in a row. No one from the company spoke to her about obtaining a National Insurance number, or about holiday or sick pay.

Ms Varela, who said about 50 Portuguese migrants were employed in the factory, was paid less than the UK employees. She was dismissed by the company after consulting the Portuguese Consulate and the TUC's Portuguese workers' project about her employment conditions. She now works for Little Chef in Andover.