I met a woman from Lithuania who asked for help a few years ago (around 2006). She was a single mum, who had not completed her education. She had lived with her father in relative poverty in Lithuania. She and some friends were recruited through an agency to work in a factory in England. She left her teenage son with her father not wanting to interrupt his education. She hoped to build a better life in England and that he might be able to join her. In the meantime she planned to send some money back home. As a mother she wanted her son to have more opportunities in life than she had
Through an interpreter she described the many people living in the cramped house in Suffolk she was placed in. She explained that rent was automatically deducted from her pay. She told me how she and others were picked up by a minibus in the early hours of the morning and how these transport costs were also automatically deducted from her pay. She talked of her 12 hour shifts: 6 days a week in a factory and of tough work conditions.
After a few months she suffered a serious accident at work, allegedly caused by a malfunction of the packing machine she was working on. She passed me a torn cardboard folder, stuffed with paper. In here I saw the photographs and medical reports from the hospital. She showed me the surgical scars on her wrist as a result of her injury.
Amongst the papers were demands from her employer to attend occupational health appointments. Letters she never received in time because of the chaos of the house she lived in. Letters in English that she would not have been able to read anyway, including the dismissal letter.
She had no income and so was kicked out of her accomodation. She was offered a sofa in a flat in a house that she described as being full of men - some young and some old. Some she thought were alcoholics, criminals and drug dealers. My impression was that she was becoming a victim of her circumstances. She explained that it was better than sleeping on the street. She talked of her shame and how she got messages back to her father and son about how well she was doing.
She talked of her attempts to seek justice from her employer in relation to the accident at work. She had secured a half hour free legal advice appointment in Essex and it was clear that a complaint had been lodged. She was leading an increasingly chaotic lifestyle. This coupled with her inability to communicate in English meant she was an unreliable client. She missed appointments, and so the case was not pursued. The interpreter talked her through the letter in the file from her employer which denied any responsibility for her accident. It was the first time she had understood their position and she was able to outline all of the health and safety failures clearly and credibly.
She took one further letter , this time from her bag. It was from a hospital, with an appointment for her to have day surgery the following week. It was accompanied by a letter setting out important do's and don'ts. The female interpreter and I gently questioned her and identified she had attended her GP and a subsequent Consultant appointment with gynaecological problems. She was frightened, and until that point had no idea what was going to happen to her.
I undertook to help her as did the interpreter. We made phone calls while she was with us to see if we could get her some immediate help.We were able to arrange an interpreter through the hospital and that was about it. I took her contact details and pursued her case with little sucess.
I was unable to contact her ever again. I found out just a few days later she was no longer at the address she had given and her mobile was unobtainable. The hospital called and were frustrated that she had not attended her appointment.
I have been thinking of this mother this week as the words 'immigration' seem to be like blazing neon signs. The current debate seems to me to focus on skewed statistics, unemployment and unfounded accusations about crime perpetrated by 'immigrants'.This debate is sucessfully dividing communities and laying blame for the rising costs of benefit payments at the feet of 'foreigners'
We should remind ourselves that we are talking about people first and foremost. Maybe mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; grandparents. People who come here or indeed to any other country to work; to contribute; to make a better life often for unselfish reasons.
Is it too much to ask that we change the debate. That we debate our humanity and what sort of society we want. That we do not accept shallow and throw away comments like ' let them speak English' Rather we debate whether there is an absolute right for all of us to work wherever we choose, and recognise the economic and social benefits of such a right. A debate that addresses the absolute right for all of us to be treated within the law and with dignity and respect when and if we do. A debate that includes our moral and financial imperative to provide help and support when and if it goes wrong.