By Simon Hattenstone, Matthew Taylor
The controversy over Lady Scotland's housekeeper has highlighted the plight of the thousands of 'undocumented workers' who live in constant fear of being deported
It's 9.20pm and John is so knackered he's finding it hard to talk. He's on his third bus of the evening, travelling from central London to Croydon, Surrey. Six months ago it took him 45 minutes to get home from work on the tube. Now that he can't afford such a luxury it can take three hours. Back then he had a good job as an IT manager earning £29,000. He had worked at the same place for 15 years, climbed the ladder and was highly regarded by his colleagues. Now he's doing a similar job for another company and half the money. He is in debt, and terrified that he could be deported or imprisoned for fraud. He is one of the many visible invisibles in Britain's workforce – the people we see every day at work that we chat away to, oblivious to the fact they are undocumented, waiting for the dreaded tap on the shoulder.
Often they are our friends. And sometimes, of course, "they" are "us".
Like Lady Scotland's Tongan housekeeper, Loloahi Tapui, John, 45, initially came to Britain to make a better life for himself. And like Scotland's housekeeper is alleged to have done, John ended up breaking the law in his desperation to cling on to that better life. He says he has nobody to blame but himself, yet as he tells his story it soon becomes apparent how easily a good man can take a wrong turn and have his life ruptured.
The term "undocumented" can be as misleading as "illegal" is insulting. It's not so much that workers don't have any documents, it's that one or two might be missing. For example, John had a P45 and national insurance number, but his visa had expired. Many students have the correct papers but find themselves classed as illegals because they have worked more than the 20 hours permitted a week – often at the insistence of agencies or employers.
According to a study by the London School of Economics published in March this year, John is one of an estimated 618,000 "irregular migrants" living in the UK.
John's story is typical of many; he did not arrive in Britain as an "illegal", he lapsed into illegality over years. In the end, he fell foul of last year's change in the law that put the onus on employers to root out undocumented workers or face fines of up to £10,000 per worker. (Scotland got away with a £5,000 fine).
He arrived in Britain from Senegal in the 1980s to study law, financially supported by wealthy parents. By his fourth year, they had lost their money and he was forced to leave college. Unable to make ends meet, he got a job in computers. He was smart and conscientious, and before long was promoted. He knew he didn't have the right to work, but he never quite got round to applying for the right to work or leave to remain.
Sometimes he genuinely forgot about it, sometimes he tried to forget about it. After all, he didn't feel like an illegal worker – he paid his taxes, junior colleagues often sought him out for advice and he didn't even take his full holiday allowance. Yes, his visa played on his mind, but one day soon enough he'd get round to it.
He had a baby daughter with his British partner and started to think about the visa more and more. They discussed marriage, but felt it would be cynical to marry just for legal reasons (another decision they both now regret). Sure, he knew theoretically there was no reason why he should not be granted leave to remain, but what if something weird happened and they turned him down, and he had to return to Senegal, and he lost his family? The thought haunted him. Best let sleeping dogs lie.
But that was easier said than done. "I began to feel I was living a lie. My wife and daughter would go abroad on holiday and I couldn't go with them because my passport was out of date. It didn't feel right."
Last year, his anxiety increased when he heard the government was clamping down on undocumented workers. He went to a lawyer to help him put his papers in order. The lawyer took £1,000 from him but did no work on his case; John was in no position to report him to the police.
In January, his father died. He was distraught, not least because he couldn't return home for the funeral. He took some time off work lest his colleagues ask why he hadn't returned to Senegal to pay his respects. That's when he knew he had to get his papers sorted. "I thought, 'This is getting too crazy', and you always think whenever there's a general election coming on, immigration becomes a big issue. So I was thinking, let me just sort it out."
A few months after his return to work, his employer casually mentioned that immigration was checking them out and they had to produce papers to make sure they were in order. John panicked. As Tapui is alleged to have done, John falsified his papers. "I pasted some data into my passport. I just didn't want to lose the job."
A few days later he was sacked, and escorted off the premises by security. John knows it could have been worse. His employer told him he could face a five-year prison sentence if they handed over the forged passport to the police.
Nobody seems happy with the new legislation. Andrew Large, chief executive of the Cleaning and Support Services Association, which represents 70% of the major cleaning contractors in the UK, said it had turned his members into "unpaid immigration officials".
"They are not only expected to require a whole host of documents for each worker and make sure they have the proper copies of each document, they now have to assess the authenticity of these documents."
He says the Lady Scotland case was a "perfect microcosm" of the problems facing many of the firms he represents. "This case shows just how much more bureaucracy is involved now and how difficult it is to get everything right. Many employers feel they are being asked to scrape up the mess that has been left behind by the immigration process." Large said the fines were putting huge pressure on companies that had no experience of sifting through documents and visas.
Ruth Grove-White, from the Migrants' Rights Network group, believes this is leading some employers not to hire workers from migrant communities just in case they are "illegal".
"Putting such a heavy responsibility on employers to check up on their employees has all sorts of sinister implications, especially for smaller businesses or individuals," she says. "There is a general erosion of trust between employers and workers, the wide scope for employers to get these complicated regulations wrong unintentionally, and worst of all, the potential for employers to 'play it safe' by choosing not to hire people from migrant or ethnic minority backgrounds more generally."
Trade unions are no happier. Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, says: "There is every reason to believe that some employers have used undocumented workers, and even those who are unsure about their status, as a way of undermining union organisation because they know that they are living in constant fear of having their doors battered down by the authorities. It gives rogue employers incredible power."
Unions such as the RMT and Unite are campaigning for an amnesty on undocumented workers. Stephen Rowlatt, learning organiser at Unite says the system in place is draconian – raids can be carried out by UK border officials without warnings, workers are unsure of their rights, and often don't know whether or not they do have the correct papers. And before there is time for legal representation, they have been sacked. Part of his job on Unite's education team is to teach migrant workers how to get their papers in order.
In June, cleaners on the early shift at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London were called in for a 6.30am staff meeting – ostensibly to discuss hours and sickness. According to witnesses, once the group of about 20 had entered the lecture theatre the door was blocked and up to 40 officers from the UK Border Agency, who had been hiding under the stage, suddenly appeared. The workers, all from South America, say the officials were in full riot gear and many thought it was a paramilitary attack. "I was very afraid," says one of the cleaners, who is 63 years old. "I did not know what they were going to do."
The officials checked the cleaners' papers and nine of them were detained and taken off for questioning.
"Within a couple of hours some of them were on planes home with nothing but a couple of plastic bags containing a few belongings," says Hanadi Katerji, a third-year politics student who, with others, had worked with the cleaners over the previous two years to get union recognition and secure the London living wage. "These were people who had been working here for years, had families here and lives here. They were not offered any legal advice or any translators, but just shipped off."
The cleaners were employed by a contract company, which has denied any links between the living wage campaign for the cleaners and the immigration raid.
One cleaner, who is still working at SOAS, said the raid had left him "sad and angry". The man, who does not want to be identified, said he had been aware that some of his colleagues were working illegally, but added: "I have cried about what happened, because these people were here working hard and trying to improve life for themselves and their families. They all had lives here and were paying taxes and had family and friends." He has spoken to some of those who had been sent back to South America. "Once they are on the plane there is not much they can do – they are resigned to it."
In November 2008 the immigration minister, Phil Woolas, told parliament that 7,500 enforcement officers were deployed in the year 2007-8 and carried out more than 15,500 "enforcement visits" or raids, resulting in 10,750 arrests. The number of raids in 2008/09 fell to 13,555. The UK Border Agency says its officers target employers who "knowingly flout the rules, often on a continual basis and often on a large scale".
"Where illegal workers are knowingly employed we will take action, and employers could face a criminal prosecution or a civil penalty," says a spokeswoman. "Anyone found to be here illegally will be expected to return home voluntarily. If people do not, we will remove them."
But campaigners dispute the government's claim that it is targeting the worst offenders. "It is quite clear that so far, the UK Border Agency has been targeting ethnic minority catering businesses that often only employ one or two undocumented migrants rather than the real offenders, which are often the big employment agencies working in hospitality, catering or cleaning," says Grove-White.
Not all undocumented workers are economic migrants. Jami, a Somalian asylum seeker arrived in Britain via Saudi Arabia where he had been tortured. Despairing, he paid a man £100 to fake his passport. "When I got the job at Argos it was an amazing feeling. I was only stacking shelves, but I had money in my pocket, rented a small room, and felt like a human again."
After three months, a police officer just happened to be in the shop. He didn't like the look of Jami, and asked to see his papers. Jami was then driven to the police station. "I wanted to lie but there was no point. He said, 'You've broken the law,' and I said, 'I know'. He said, 'We could put you in jail for three to five years, why did you do it?' I said, 'What choice did I have?' I had no support. Nothing. I knew it was wrong, but it was better than being a drug dealer."
Jami was let off with a caution, but warned that he would definitely be prosecuted if caught working again. "Of course, I won't work without papers now," he says. "I'm terrified … It's hard, really hard. If you've got money and work you've got a life." Jami went back to sleeping in parks and on the streets.
Back at Unite, Rowlatt's colleague Donna Reeve is getting angrier by the second. "Animals have more protection than undocumented workers. What's more this system doesn't work. Undocumented workers are kicked out and have to find another employer. The story doesn't end with the solution that somebody has been caught and somebody's been fined. It's just government PR saying they're being tough."
Nor does it end for most people as it has for Tapui, with the celebrity publicist Max Clifford riding to the rescue. He says he has moved Tapui and her husband Alexander Zivancevic to a safe house because they were being "besieged by the media … They came to me asking for protection and guidance and that is what I have given them".
"If they wanted to sell their story they could," Clifford says. "They have told me that lots of people have already offered them money so we need to sit down and discuss the next move."
As for John, he is not sure what his next move will be. "My new boss says, 'John, you're fantastic with computers', and he wants to give me a full-time job. But I won't take it. He asks why, and I just say I don't want one, that at heart I'm an eternal student.
"I can feel myself getting trapped in this vicious circle of lies again."
How has all this changed him? He doesn't know where to start. "I've had to take a wage drop of £14,000. I'm two months behind in my rent. I feel such shame." He pauses. "My partner just miscarried a baby at three months. I'm sure it's the pressure of what's happening because she's thinking how would she support two children … you know …" He chokes up. "It's just been disaster upon disaster."
And yet, as he knows only to well, things could have been much worse. "I'm not complaining about the discomfort. I'm lucky that I can still do one or two things workwise. For now, I'm lying very low, keeping things quiet."
But he has his plans. This time round, he's definitely applying for leave to remain. And with his British partner and child and 20 years continual work, there should be no problem. But there is one. It costs £820 to apply, and he simply doesn't have that kind of spare money at the moment. Again, it's something he is going to have to leave for another day.
John is a pseudonym and some details have been changed