Night workers: Chef in London’s Chinatown

Featured photo courtesy of  Az1172’s  photostream

Zheng Han arrived to the UK in 1996, at the age of 34. He comes from Fujian province in China and speaks Mandarin Chinese. He lives undocumented in London because his asylum case was refused. In 2002, after 6 years of no physical contact with his wife and son, he risked travelling to France with someone else’s passport to meet with his wife because she had been denied access to the UK. Soon after he returned they divorced because it was impossible to maintain their marriage whilst apart.

Han first lived in Slough for a few years. Originally, he worked through an agent. Now, he is connected to the Chinese community, which helps newcomers find jobs. He found his current job via a job search website. He works from 10:30 – 15:00 and from 16:30 – 00:00, six days a week. In total, he works 13 hours per night and 78 hours per week. He complained of pain in his feet and calves, but no serious health injuries – just exhaustion.

[h3]A Form of Forced Labour[/h3]

He lives and shares one room with two work colleagues above the restaurant. The accommodation is free but on his only day off he often gets called to help in the restaurant, and sometimes other staff come to smoke in his room. He works six days a week, which is normal in the catering industry, but he thinks it is abnormal to be in the same place for seven days. Recently, he has been leaving building on his day off to get away from the work and the room.

Han’s living and working situation is often called a ‘tie-in‘ and is a form of forced labour. Employers use the lure of free accommodation on site but then over work the employee because they live so close by. Joseph Roundtree Foundation published a recent report on experiences of forced labour in the UK’s food industry, which details some of the human costs of ‘tie-ins’.

In the last 2 years, Han has had a rough time because he is fighting a ‘lost battle’. Half of the people he knew from the Fujian province have received asylum papers, but many more cases like Han’s are still waiting for a decision from the UK Border Agency (UKBA). UKBA was supposed to finalise the backlog of asylum cases (sometimes referred to as ‘legacy cases’) over a year ago, but have not. The UKBA’s incompetence in this matter is truly shameful.

Han knows about 4 colleagues who are also undocumented, but people rarely talk about their immigration status. Many of his colleagues are often detained, rather than deported, because they did not have travel documents when they arrived to the UK and can’t be sent home.

[h3]Future Plans On Hold[/h3]

Han has been a chef for 16 years in the UK. ‘In the second phase of his life’, as he calls it, Han spends more time with people in the Chinese community. He volunteers his time for the church and he is a trustee of a Chinese migrant organisation set up to fight injustice against the Chinese community in UK. He values that in London the community ties are strong. For example, a 40 year old Chinese woman was robbed and beaten (punched in the chest) – her child took her to the hospital, but because she could not speak proper English the nurses ignored them. Han helped the woman find a job because she was traumatised after the experiences. Now, the woman lives above the restaurant where she works.

After these experiences, Han thinks that better access to health care and better English language skills could improve the lives of migrants in the UK. He thinks that lack of English is a big problem for the migrant communities. Looking to the future, he would love to be a tour guide because he likes to travel. In China, tourism is a growing industry and it is a good time to take advantage of that opportunity, but he cannot do anything since he is still undocumented.

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