Gangmasters 'exploiting Polish migrants in Wales'.
Criminal gangmasters are operating in Wales exploiting immigrant workers, a leading founder of Poland's Solidarity movement warned yesterday.
Jozef Pinior, now a member of the European Parliament, travelled to the Welsh Labour conference in Swansea to expose the plight of many Polish migrants who are paying big fees to travel to Wales with the promise of well-paid work that does not materialise. Instead, they find themselves on low wages and paying over the odds for accommodation.
He told delegates, 'Too often and for too many migrants, the promise of profitable employment in Wales ends in hardship and anguish at the hands of unscrupulous gangmasters.'
Mr Pinior went on to refer specifically to the situation in Llanelli where gangmasters are procuring Polish workers, many from Mr Pinior's constituency of Wroclaw, for local food-processing factories.
The workers are charged about pounds 200 for a one-way bus ticket and coerced into signing 'zero-hour' contracts. They are employed for long hours on night shifts and weekends for a minimum wage, while their contracts with the gangmaster compel them to pay around pounds 60 a week for transport and sub-standard and crowded accommodation. The payments must be made despite no guarantee of regular work or pay.
After the foundation of Solidarity in 1980, Mr Pinior worked closely with Lech Walesa and others to secure recognition for the first independent trade union in Eastern Europe since the Second World War. Days before martial law was announced in 1981, with an order that all Solidarity's assets should be seized, Mr Pinior was given responsibility for withdrawing 80 million zloty from the union's bank account and hiding it in a place that would enable significant underground activity to continue. He hid the money in the palace of the Archbishop of Wroclaw. The result of the continuing pressure put on the repressive regime by Solidarity was the arrival in power of a non-communist government in 1989.
Mr Pinior said, 'I spent some years as an academic before returning to politics. I organised the Yes to Europe campaign in my area during the referendum that resulted in Poland joining the EU. I was then elected as a social democrat MEP in 1994. I am fully behind the free labour market, but strongly believe that people deserve to be treated with decency.'
Wales Euro-MP Eluned Morgan, who facilitated Mr Pinior's appearance at the conference, is working with him to raise awareness of such gangmasters and close the zero-hour contract loophole.
She said, 'We cannot turn a blind eye when migrant workers suffer exploitation and are told that they are worth less than national workers doing the same jobs. These migrants are filling essential vacancies in many of our key industries including agriculture, hospitality, food processing and health services. They are vital to the future success of the Welsh economy and should be valued as such.'
Ms Morgan pointed out that in the UK today, with the highest employment level of any G7 country, there are 600,000 unfilled job vacancies.
The Labour Government has already recognised that current measures to protect migrants from exploitation are insufficient.
Earlier this month it announced new measures to ensure all gangmasters must be licensed.
To obtain a licence, gangmasters will have to ensure they are not using illegal labour and not illegally exploiting migrants or forcing them to work in dangerous conditions.
Anyone found operating without a licence will be fined up to pounds 5,000 or jailed for up to 10 years.