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14 Aug 12

Less than minimum

Sorana Stanescu

After meeting migrant workers in London, I studied the receipts from my trip and wondered how some of my interviewees stayed alive.

Take for instance my snack at Luton airport, following a three-hour flight from Bucharest. The receipt is from the Marks and Spencers food store, and totals £6.05 (about €7.7). This includes the £2.95 I paid for a sandwich, the £1.95 cost of a lemonade and the £1.15 price of a tiny chocolate tart.

Now compare this with the wage earned by a Bulgarian woman employed as a cleaner at a four-star central London hotel. She is paid around £2 (about €2.5) for every room she prepares.

This involves changing the bed linen and vacuuming the carpet in the bedroom, as well as scrubbing the toilet, the shower, the sink and the floor in the bathroom. She will also have to replace any toiletries and mini-bar beverages and possibly give the windows a wipe as well.

An experienced, energetic cleaner will need at least 30 minutes to finish these tasks. By preparing two rooms every hour, a cleaner can expect to earn £4.

In order to afford the £2.95 sandwich, the Bulgarian worker will have put in just under an hour’s hard work, or clean one-and-a-half rooms.

The £4 that she earns is only two-thirds of the hourly minimum wage of £6.08, which most UK workers are technically entitled to.

But the Bulgarian woman can be paid less because she is classed as self-employed, and because she was recruited through an agency that provides cleaning services for hotel and office buildings throughout London.

The hotel might – and most likely does – pay more than £2 for every room that she cleans. However, the wage the cleaner receives is determined by the agency that recruits her. There are plenty of cleaners in London who have been doing their job for three years for the same money.

Under British law, the self-employed are exempt from minimum wage restrictions. In theory, this means they are free to run their own business and negotiate their own rates and conditions. In practice however, competition is high and work is scarce. Most people in this category, migrants particularly, have to accept whatever jobs and pay employment agencies offer.

Bulgarian and Romanian workers are especially disadvantaged. As they do not have full working rights in the British labour market, they depend heavily on employment agencies. In low-skilled jobs such as cleaning, nominal “self-employment” is the only option.

The Bulgarian woman’s colleagues at the four-star hotel are mostly her compatriots, or have come from Russia, Lithuania and Romania. None of the cleaners is British.

If you’re ever tempted to leave a hotel room in a mess, perhaps you should spare a thought for those cleaners. The money they make from tidying up after you might get them a 500ml lemonade bottle at Marks and Spencer – but it won’t cover the cost of a sandwich.

Meanwhile, a luxury room at the Bulgarian cleaner’s four-star hotel can cost up to £1,000 per night.

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