Dimsum.co.uk “Chinese Whispers” review

August 14, 2008

An article i’ve written for DimSum:

“Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour”

by Hsiao-Hung Pai

Fig Tree Paperback

Right now as you sit comfortably reading this article an army of invisible workers is toiling day and night to provide you with fresh inexpensive supermarket produce, clean homes, cheap restaurant meals and pirated DVDs, they provide supermarkets with booming profits and contribute billions to the British economy. Though invisible, you know these people; they are the harassed waiters in London’s Chinatown, DVD sellers in supermarket car-parks and the bodies being unloaded from the back of trucks in Dover or washed up on the beaches of Morecambe bay…

This army of workers numbers somewhere between 310,000 and 570,000 people (UK Home Office 2007). They come from all over the world, different races and different languages united only in their poverty, overwork and underpay. These members of the British ‘Sub-Economy’ are not protected by any employment law or support group; they have no access to legal services, education, housing or healthcare and are made ripe for exploitation due to their ‘illegal migrant’ status. The work they perform is refused by established British workers. It’s done in atrocious, hazardous conditions with illegally long hours and rewarded with pitiful wages.

Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Book ‘Chinese Whispers’ examines one sector of this labour army; probably the most vulnerable and most exploited group, the Chinese migrant worker. To get a firsthand account of the plight of these people, Hsia-Hung Pai went undercover posing as a newly arrived migrant shortly after the Morecambe Bay Tragedy in 2004 (elements of the book form the basis of Nick Broomfield’s film ‘Ghosts’); ‘Chinese Whispers’ documents her experiences in the British black economy. Hsiao-hung begins by describing the reality of the effects of globalisation and the boom of the new Chinese economy.

Universally portrayed as the poster boy of capitalistic success, China also has an underclass of unemployed workers left out of the economic miracle, workers who were laid-off from bankrupt state industries that previously supplied much of the country with stable and guaranteed employment. These people now find themselves with obsolete skills in a massive sea of cheap labour, living in grinding poverty, desperate to survive but with little prospect of change. Out of desperation families will borrow huge amounts of money to pay people-smugglers to send their sons and daughters to the west in search of employment.

With a reputation for wealth, ‘fair-play’ and friendliness, the UK is a choice destination. But arriving in England they find themselves at the bottom of the heap of an already established exploitative hierarchical system of snakehead smugglers, gang masters and employers who turn a blind eye. Isolated, disoriented and unable to speak the language they soon find themselves working in indentured labour conditions, paying off their families debts on laughably small wages.

Hsiao-Hung Pai’s book reports in stark detail the reality of the daily lives of Chinese ‘illegals’ and in doing so follows a tradition of undercover reporting as a way of highlighting social issues from Orwell’s  ‘Down and Out in Paris’ to Mayhew’s ‘London Labour and the London Poor’. The book offers no concrete solutions but aims to bring, whatever you opinion is on immigration is, a shameful situation to light.
Facts on Immigration:

  • There are between 310,000 and 570,000 illegal immigrants in the UK, according to Home Office estimates
  • If allowed to live legally, they would pay more than £1bn in tax each year
  • Deporting them would cost £4.7bn and leave acute shortages of cleaners, care workers and hotel staff if allowed to stay, the net benefit of nearly £6bn would pay for 300 new schools, 12 district hospitals or 200,000 new nurses
  • Nearly 50% of foreign-born immigrants leave Britain within five years
  • Migrants fill 90% of low-paid jobs in London and account for 29% of the capital’s workforce. London is the UK’s fastest-growing region
  • Legal migrants comprise 8.7% of the population, but contribute 10.2% of all taxes. Each immigrant pays an average of £7,203 in tax, compared with £6,861 for non-migrant workers
  • There were 25,715 people claiming asylum last year. If allowed to work, they would generate £123m for the Treasury (Nigel Morris, Home Affairs Correspondent, The Independent Friday, 31 March 2006)

read the rest of the review and comment here:


2 Responses to “Dimsum.co.uk “Chinese Whispers” review”

  1. Here in the States, we have an Asian and of course a Latin American underground workforce. As in the States, if you take out the illegal foreign workers, everything will become crippled and stop. Between Boston and New York runs a bus line called FUNG WA. It originated for kitchen workers between the two Chinatowns to get from one giant restaurant complex to another working for little or nothing. Work 12 hours, hop a bus to Boston or New York and sleep for four hours, arrive at destination to do your next 12 hours and then repeat ad infinitum. But then the Caucasians discovered it and FUNG WA and it’s competitors are also filled with thrifty gwai-lo now.

  2. Uh, so what I meant to say there before I submitted prematurely is we need to do something about it, i.e. legalize them.

    Or just kill Moby.

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