David de Verney offers a brief sketch of a new type of church ministry among the migrant workers from Eastern Europe with the difficulties and challenges it presents
I took up my post as the new Chaplain for Migrant Workers and New Arrival Communities in Southeast Lincolnshire in January 2006. About one tenth of our county’s population are migrant workers. The original ‘first wave’ of guest workers arrived about eight or ten years ago mainly from Portugal and have been established here ever since. Most are fairly settled, are beginning to enter the housing market as buyers and have children in primary and secondary schools. Some have even started to return to Portugal.
With the arrival of other newcomers from the Eastern European New Accession States like Poland and Lithuania, the ethnic, professional and social mix of the area began to change more rapidly. Many Eastern European guest workers are well-educated, single and very competitive in their professional outlook. This can lead to tensions within the New Arrival Communities. While the Portuguese workers and their families are largely un-churched and have no unifying markers apart from their nationality and language, the Eastern European workers, especially those from Poland, are as a majority loyal Catholics and congregate both socially and in religious terms around the local Catholic churches.
Isolation of new communities
My own work with New Arrival Communities falls mainly in four different categories. Most of my time is taken up with advocacy and liaison. I am working closely with the Community and Diversity teams of the Southern and Eastern divisions of Lincolnshire Constabulary. We have almost weekly meetings, monitoring anything from incidents of hate crimes to road safety procedures. Most foreign workers are too scared to report hate crimes or violations of their employment rights because of well-founded fears of retribution by their gangmaster.
Another important link in my work is the collaboration with local Citizens Advice Bureaux, which are doing invaluable work with free employment advice and monitoring of gangmaster activities. I also meet almost weekly with officers of both Boston Borough Council and South Holland District Council, especially with regard to housing and homelessness issues. In Boston, half of all homeless people are migrant workers, mainly because they have been thrown out by their gangmasters who are also their landlords. Few workers have a rent book or rental contract.
When seasonal work in the fields and packing factories dries up, many workers not only lose their jobs but also their accommodation in houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) and are forced to sleep in derelict buildings, parks, old cars or in bushes along the river Witham. The only two night shelters in this county are in Lincoln and Skegness. With others, I am involved in trying to provide a night shelter for Boston and Spalding. We have not been successful so far because the local Council refuses to support the day centre for the homeless in Boston with more than £5,500 per year, although they are given £40,000 a year by central government to combat homelessness.
Little extra funding
GP practices and local hospitals do not get extra funding either to deal with the increase in user numbers; in particular, A&E and maternity wards suffer from under-funding. In addition,
personnel are not trained to deal with non-English speaking patients and different cultural conditions. With the Chief Chaplain for the NHS hospitals in Lincolnshire, I have been involved in a teaching programme for NHS staff in multi-culturalism and multi-faith issues. I regularly encounter racial prejudice.
I have become involved in the training of two dozen interpreters for face to face translations – a service desperately needed here and elsewhere. Until now children or neighbours had to translate in often difficult and confidential circumstances. I trained with the first batch of translators to get an insight into the challenges involved. This work is now expanding into other parts of the county.
As more and more children of migrant worker families enter the school system, an increased demand for specialized support has arisen. Because of limited resources from the County Council, EMAS (Ethnic Minorities Achievement Services) struggle to find enough qualified personnel teaching in the children’s native languages. Funding for this vital service is woefully inadequate. As a former teacher, I know this problem well. I have been privileged to help three teachers from Poland, who were working in the fields around Boston, to be recognized as qualified teachers by the Department of Education. The standard of education among the Eastern European workers is generally high, 50% have A levels or even higher degrees.
During my work in the last year, I have come across several so-called gangmasters’ or ‘labour providers’. Some try to do the right thing, most do not. I have started an open dialogue with those labour providers who wish to talk to me. Another part of my work is the dialogue with farmers, packing factories and supermarkets. I am just beginning to visit offices and factories and to learn about the difficulties this sector of the migrant-worker-dependent-economy is experiencing.
And what of the Christian communities? Sadly, many Christians do not know or do not want to know about the plight of foreign workers in our midst. Exploitation and abuse of foreigners is an evil that does not only happen through gangmasters and unscrupulous employers but also in the streets and shops of our towns and villages. Foreigners are being badly treated and discriminated against by our fellow citizens.
Often, Christians need educating and re-acquainting with Gospel values. For this reason I seek and accept preaching engagements in churches and chapels of all denominations in Lincolnshire. I run workshops in church halls, schools and old peoples’ homes. I give assemblies in schools and talk to youth clubs and deanery synods. Most are eager to learn about the plight of those who provide, by their labour in our fields, the fruit and vegetables we take for granted. The Mothers’ Union has started a series of ‘Meet the Foreign Workers’ workshops, which enable members to actually talk to foreign workers face to face and hear first-hand about their lives among us.
Many Christians are keen to pray, and many are willing to lobby politicians, supermarkets and ‘labour providers’ to help change the way our food is sourced. If we support Fair Trade with foreign countries, would it not be time to start demanding fair trade in our own?