Page last updated at 21:32 GMT, Wednesday, 25 April 2007 22:32 UK

Joining the immigrant underclass

By Audrius Lelkaitis

Audrius Lelkaitis
Mr Lelkaitis pretended to be an unskilled worker

Audrius Lelkaitis is a TV journalist living in Lithuania. In February he threw out his designer gear, shaved his head and donned a secret camera.

He was about to pretend to be an unskilled worker who did not speak English as part of a BBC News investigation.

When I arrived in Hull, it was already dark and the streets empty. But there was no-one at the bus station to meet me and it was getting cold.

Before leaving Lithuania, I paid £180 for the promise of work with Focus Staff Limited, a licensed employment agency or gangmaster, at the minimum wage of £5.35 per hour.

I'd also had to hand over £160 to CCCP UK Limited - the middlemen in London - so I was getting angry.

Three to a room

I phoned CCCP UK and was given the phone number for Andrei at Focus Staff.

"We weren't expecting you" he said in Russian, slightly irritated, and drove me to my accommodation, telling me to "rest" for several days.

There were three of us sharing a room - mine had no bedding - and very little furniture. It was too late to buy a duvet, so I tried to sleep in my clothes but was dead with cold.

There was no work for six days, despite ringing Andrei several times. Then, with 20 minutes notice, I had to pack my things and leave. I ended up on a farm in North Yorkshire.

My room slept 12 men and women. Another 10 workers lived in several rooms upstairs. Another three were crammed in a camper van nearby, and all of us shared three toilets and two showers.

Interior of workers' bedroom
Eleven other migrant workers were forced to live in this room

The beds were so close my neighbours had a nasty habit of throwing their hands at me in their sleep. Every evening, mature women had to put on their nightclothes facing semi-naked men. It was demoralising and degrading.

The others said they were paying £50 a week for this accommodation - and even if they moved out they still had to pay.

There was no information about when I would be paid or the cost of accommodation, no paperwork of any kind. I was completely broke by now, and had to borrow £20 to buy food.

I was only managing to get four hours sleep because of others coming and going and techno music blasting out

My 12-hour night shift at a chemical packing plant would start at 5.30pm. We were shifting bags of material around by hoist. I was allowed to operate the machinery without any training.

I was finished at 5.30 in the morning - those were happy moments - then I had to spend an hour driving sleepy workers back home, and pay for the fuel ourselves.

Back at the farm I was only managing to get four hours' sleep because of others coming and going and techno music blasting out. I soon started losing my sense of humour.

No pay

I had been in the UK for over a fortnight but when someone from the company came to the farm to pay us, there was nothing for me. Even some of those who were paid said they were not paid for all the hours they had worked. I had to ask for another loan for food.

At the weekend we would try to relax with alcohol - a bottle of horrible tasting German vodka cost just £3 - but this regularly led to fights and shouting matches.

Camer crew outside house
Focus Staff Ltd denied any illegal employment

It was more than three weeks before I was paid anything. After more than 120 hours work I received £47 in cash. My pay slip was for 20 hours, at £4.85 - below the minimum wage.

But only just over half of it was there. The rest had been taken - presumably for the accommodation. When I queried my money, I was told to talk to the British boss.

I felt miserable. If it had been for real, I am sure I would not have escaped some suicidal thoughts.

I felt vulnerable, I had to plead for my work and for the money I had earned. This may not be slavery, but I felt like a slave. Luckily for me, it was time to leave and reveal to the agencies that this was part of a BBC investigation.

Focus Staff denied having any involvement with CCCP UK, or underpaying workers. It said its workers were treated fairly and in line with UK employment law.

CCCP UK and the Lithuanian agency, ITC, also denied any involvement in illegal activity.

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