The last week has seen hunger strikes at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire in protest at inadequate medical care: after all, this ‘detention centre’, run by private contractor Serco, is in all but name a prison. In this piece, a Chilean woman detained in Yarl’s Wood speaks of how her employer had her sent there after she protested about unpaid wages.
I’ve lived in London for two years, working as a cleaner and factory worker – usually several shifts a day. At first when I was working at Fitness First there was no problem and I got all my wages, but then they changed their cleaning contractor. The new bosses deliberately took on staff without papers. I was told to keep working for three months without pay, and then I was sacked. They threatened to take my case to the Home Office because I had no right to be here. But I said to them that I wasn’t going to walk away and would get my money back. They were surprised because they thought they were big and they thought I was nothing.
Then began the story of working with the union, the Latin American Workers Association and London Coalition Against Poverty. So thanks to my friends and the union, we won this fight and I was paid over £1000 that I was owed. Then I found out that hundreds of people were experiencing exactly the same problem as me.
But those who I spoke to were afraid to speak out and told me they’d rather keep quiet. This exploitation is based on the fact that people will keep quiet. But despite my employers’ threats of calling the police etc it was important not to be afraid. I said to these people it is necessary to protest and not to be afraid. It is possible to stand up to them and it is possible to fight them.
I decided to get involved in helping people who had the same problem as me. I told them the same had happened to me and nothing bad had happened.
When a company is exploiting people like taht because they are the weakest we shouldn’t keep quiet, we should shout it loud so that people open their eyes and realise what is happening.
When I get out of here, by which I mean going back to London not Chile, (though I guess I’ll get out either way), I’ll go and continue talking to people about it just as I did before I was arrested by the police.
I’ll tell people my story and what’s happened to me because it was the management of this company who told the police my address. I am writing my story now to share it even from the detention centre. I have been interviewed by the radio, national newspapers and a Latin American paper – they all said I was brave. many people are phoning because they know I’m willing to talk and will speak out.
If the same thing happens to you as it did to me, you should confront these people and if you need support, you should go out and get it. There are organisations that can represent, like in my case, and unions. Don’t take threats and don’t be afraid of threats that companies like this make when they are not paying people properly. Good luck and I hope you don’t get caught by the immigration police like I was.