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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 11:43 GMT
Woes of Boston's 'gang workers'
By Cindi John
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Boston has experienced an influx of migrant workers

"For the first two months I was here I lived like an animal. I slept in a garage and had to share a room with as many as ten other people before I managed to get a job."

Sergio Magalhaes' story is typical of those told by some members of the Portuguese community in the market town of Boston in Lincolnshire.

Attracted by a newspaper advert in Portugal promising work and accommodation, he arrived in January 2003 to find neither existed.

In the last couple of years the number of Portuguese migrant workers in the Boston area has dramatically increased in response to such adverts placed by so-called 'gang masters' who recruit staff for farms and packing factories which are the mainstay of the area's economy.

More than half the 70,000 agricultural and horticultural workers in the Boston area are believed to be foreign nationals and up to 3,000 of Boston's 55,000 residents are thought to be from Portugal.

We have a client who one week was left with just 6 from his wages after deductions
Alison Fairman, Citizens' Advice Bureau

They are promised steady work and accommodation but on arrival find though the work generally exists, it can be extremely short-term and the accommodation that goes with it, substandard, over-crowded and over-priced.

It's a problem currently getting high-level attention. Earlier this week the government published advice to Portuguese migrant workers advising them of their rights.

And on Friday a bill proposed by Boston's MP Mark Simmonds, which aims to regulate the activities of gang masters is due for a second reading in the House of Commons.

'Excessive deductions'

Such measures may bring improvements in the long-term but, in the meantime, the local Citizens' Advice Bureau is often the first port of call for migrant workers in trouble.

Sergio Magalhaes
Sergio Magalhaes: Housing problems
Deputy manager Alison Fairman said many people who visited them were having excessive amounts for rent and transport to their workplaces deducted by unscrupulous gang masters.

"We have a client who one week was left with just 6 from his wages after deductions," Ms Fairman said.

Even when they were made aware of their rights as European Union citizens, most chose not to go to the authorities to complain about their treatment fearing eviction, she added.

However, Andy Statham, head of Community Services at Boston Borough Council, told BBC News Online in spite of their reluctance to complain an increasing number of migrant workers in the town are homeless.

Mr Statham estimated between 15-20% of those registering as homeless with the council's housing department were foreign nationals.

"They don't have rent books, they have no security of tenure, they can be in a property for a few months expecting to reside there for the period they have work over here and suddenly find themselves, literally at a moment's notice, out on the streets," he said.

But as most were fit, young men they were not priority cases for re-housing by the council, Mr Statham added.

'Hot bedding'

For practical help many turn to the local Centrepoint Outreach charity where each day two drop-in sessions for the town's homeless and those with housing problems are held.

Either somebody's got to help them like we do or they're going to go out and get involved in crime
John Marshall, Centrepoint Outreach

Chief executive John Marshall said over the last couple of years they had seen a significant increase in the number of foreign nationals attending.

The charity helped by providing them with advice, food, and in a growing number of cases, furniture such as bedding.

"Of course there is a dilemma because the council perception could be that we're helping with what's been called the 'hot-bedding' problem of putting too many people in one room in one house.

"But if somebody's sleeping rough and they've got a chance to have a roof over their heads in the warm, albeit on a mattress in a crowded room, they're going to take that opportunity," Mr Marshall said.

"Either somebody's going to help them like we do or they're going to go out and get involved in crime," he added.


But some migrants who do get over the initial problems say they are facing a growing tide of racism in the town.

Bar owner Vasco de Mello says racism is increasing
That is borne out by recent anti-migrant letters in Boston newspapers, fights which break out sporadically between locals and Portuguese or other foreign youths and an attack on a Turkish club.

An anti-migrant campaign group, Boston Citizens United, has also been set up.

Sergio Magalhaes says he and friends have all been the target of abuse from some locals.

"If you are in the streets at night, either alone or with friends, they will shout at you and those sort of things," he said.

Local businessman Vasco de Mello who owns a bar and employment agency in the town believes he has also suffered due to racism, with false complaints about him and his businesses made to the council.

There aren't enough jobs for local people never mind bringing them in
Boston woman
"I can't say it's only racial problems because some people are very jealous but it's not everyone, I have some very good English friends" Mr de Mello said.

But in Boston's bustling market place, opinions on the newcomers appears divided.

"There aren't enough jobs for local people never mind bringing them in," said one middle-aged woman.

But local factory worker, Barry White, said he had no problems with the Portuguese.

"I don't mind the migrant workers coming in providing they're from the EEC because we're all part of Europe.

" But I do get annoyed at the people skipping into this country who have no right and are just coming here for a gravy ticket," he said.

Help for Portuguese migrants
18 Nov 03  |  Cambridgeshire
Migrant workers 'face exploitation'
14 Jul 03  |  Business

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