A migrant's story

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A migrant’s story

Afrika left Ethiopia for London when she was 15. She helped organize her community organizing and her mother thought it was a good idea for her to join a union. Now she is 30, and she is a trade union organizer. But it’s difficult to organize migrants, especially working in hospitality.


by iStock/Thinkstock

Most people who work in hospitality are migrants. We change jobs often because of the terrible pay and working conditions. We travel a long way to work in the city centre, and when we get home we’re too tired to do anything. We’re not machines, but all we do is work and rest. Many hospitality workers have physical problems – bad backs, aches and pains. They take painkillers to complete their work, or start drinking alcohol to relax and sleep, or drink lots of energy drinks to be able to work all day.

Migrants do this work because it's often much better than the poverty or repression they come from – and employers know that. Employers know there are lots of other people who can do the work if they leave.

Migrants just want to start a new life, a life without trouble, but they don’t understand the language or the system. There are no local people to help, colleagues who can give advice on how things work here.

The workers often don’t help each other much. There have different languages and cultures. And people want to keep their life private. Often they don’t trust the others because it’s difficult to trust others when people don't stay in the job for long.

Some staff – on a minimum wage – have to buy their own shirts or suits to feel comfortable or smart at work because of cuts in hotel budgets.

Sometimes there are cultural or religious issues for women migrant workers. I saw a housekeeper put her headscarf back on at the end of a shift. Someone had told her she wasn’t allowed to wear it at work, and she didn’t know it’s illegal for her employer to force her to take it off.

Many people don’t know about unions. I’ve told people that I’m in a union, but it’s hard to talk to them about it. Some are afraid to join. They feel loyal to their managers and are afraid of what the managers will think. They are worried it will be expensive. And they are afraid they could lose their job.

We want people to accept unions in the workplace. Then union organizers could talk to staff at work, not just at the back door where there are CCTV cameras.

Most people think of the union as a way to get individual rights rather, not collective rights. We help with personal problems, but we need to get in the workplace so that we can train workers to help themselves.

If people are in a union, this helps them to understand their rights. But it’s difficult to get them into the union. It’s also important for the union to give us migrant workers a voice, to listen to our experiences, and to give us power. Because it’s our union.

Afrika spoke to Jo Lateu.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2016/09/01/a-migrants-story/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).