Women at Yarl’s Wood allege exploitation; meager amount paid for menial work
3rd January 2010: Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire is in controversy yet again. Women detained at the removal centre have alleged exploitation; and claimed they were earning meager amount for menial work of serving meals and for cleaning up the dining room.
In fact, the detainees have dubbed the work as "modern-day slavery". They have also accused the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and Serco — the outsourcing company that runs the centre — of exploiting them.
The aggrieved women have claimed they were being paid 50p an hour for menial tasks.
As per the UKBA’s guidance of 2008, the detainees are to be paid £1 an hour for routine work; and a higher rate of £1.25 an hour for specified projects such as painting a room. Detainees are exempt from the minimum wage under immigration laws.
According to the information gathered by the Guardian, the women were allegedly employed alongside paid border agency staff for serving food in the canteen and also to clean up after meals.
Reacting to the findings, refugee groups said "pittance" paid to the detainees was nothing less than a "cruel irony" as asylum seekers were not allowed to work in the community.
Chief executive of the Refugee Council Donna Covey said it is a cruel irony that immigration detainees were being paid a pittance, while asylum seekers in the community were not allowed to work, even though this would save taxpayers’ money and enable them to contribute fully to society.
In Yarl’s Wood for three months following arrested for overstaying in the UK, Gloria Sestus, 32, of Nigeria said it was really humiliating. It was like slavery in a modernised form. The amount paid does not allow you to buy much, just a £5 phone card for a week’s work and maybe some noodles from the shop.
Sestus alleged she was paid £1 for cleaning up the dining room after meals twice a day. The task would sometimes take more than an hour at a time.
The detainees alleged it was not uncommon at lunch and dinner time for them to outnumber uniformed Serco staff in the canteen. Giving details, they alleged as many as three detainees would serve a course each, while one chef cooked. Detainees would clear up after meals, cleaning the table and mopping the floor.
In Yarl’s Wood for 11 months following arrest for working with false papers as a cleaner in Cardiff, Jane Uyi, 43, also from Nigeria, claimed she agreed to work at the centre as she needed the money.
She claimed there was nobody there to visit her and no one to help her, so she took up the work. It helped her get money to buy credit for the phone. She questioned why was she not allowed to work on the outside so she could save up some money?
Uyi said she had been paid £5.50 an hour as a cleaner in Cardiff.
While a spokesman for Serco refused to comment, a UKBA spokesperson said immigration detainees have always been able to volunteer for paid work and, in fact, the UK chief inspector of prisons has recommended that the amount of paid work available to detainees should increase. Detainees in immigration centres are exempt from the minimum wage.
This voluntary work was not a substitute for the work of trained staff, and was, in fact, popular among detainees. The UKBA believes it is important to maintain a clear distinction between economic migration and asylum. Illegal working has a serious impact on communities, taking jobs from those who are genuinely allowed to work.