• Ilona Low
Location:
Aberdeen
Date:
Tuesday 2nd December 2008
Reference:
SWI2008/017

Simon:

OK. So I guess if we start with how you met Viktoras.

     

Ilona:

It was the meeting for migrant workers. A lot of people came. It was a few years ago now, I think it was 2004. A long time ago! I think it was four ... The time is going so fast. I think it was four ... It was cold, so maybe it was the beginning of 2005. I remember it was cold. It was the first meeting.

Simon:

So this was in Banff?

     

Ilona:

Yeah, it was in Banff in the community centre. It was organised by the community centre to show the people what services they have. How to use the health centre ... If they have problems, how to call ambulance or to call fire brigade. I think it was also people from library ... It was a lot of stalls but in the beginning nobody came, it was so sad! But after, a lot of Polish came, a lot. There was maybe twenty, maybe more. And suddenly came about ten Lithuanians, or Latvians, together. I don’t remember ... They wanted to complain about something. If they were not paid or something, I will not tell you. And it was Viktoras in that crowd at that time. I remember the woman, it was after that. It was his girlfriend, Sveta. She had very curly hair. So I think I lent them the phone ... the number of my mobile phone and after that they started calling me.

 

So because I worked for Grampian Racial Equality Council (GREC), everything that was coming to me I was telling to GREC and especially with Viktoras’ case because I knew that Ron was the case worker. Yeah ... So it was the first meeting. And after that I got a telephone call later on saying that Viktoras was sacked when they find out that he’s sick. Yeah, he took, I think, two weeks off to go to hospital to take the checks and so on. But he needed more time to do that and when he told to employers to give him one more week because he needed to go to Elgin to do some x-rays or something else ... So they sacked! And I think he was not paid so I got the call from him and we went to hospital with Ron, wrote all ... a lot of papers we filled and wrote all his story, but because I think we passed the day you’re supposed to appeal, so it never went through. Maybe Ron still has these papers we were writing at that time in hospital. And unfortunately, because they all were working through the agency so it was depending where the jobs were. In Grampian Chickens in Banff or in some fish factories. But Grampian Chickens closed so it was more than two hundred people lost jobs so a lot of them moved to Aberdeen or Huntly.

 

So we met again! Because Viktoras was sick he was spending a lot of time in hospital, he couldn’t work. He was too weak. Plus he went for operation, he was diagnosed with a lump on his left hand and the doctor advised it was better to amputate and amputation was quite high on ... almost at his shoulder, it was very, very high. So he lost his arm.

     
 

Again we meet him quite ill in hospital. He went to do his artificial arm and he was doing very well adapting to that arm and the nurses were even so surprised how he’s doing so well! They even made photos for the students to see how the person can do so well. So he didn’t need a lot of help, he was given some tin openers and fork with a knife in one piece but he really was doing all these things very, very well. So then Ron helped him with the flat ... (inaudible) ... housing, but at that time he was not working so he couldn’t get it in his name so it was his girlfriend that got that flat. So they start living there but before he was renting and staying in somebody’s house. Yeah, that period which took about half a year, maybe more, to get all his ... before he start working I think. And still they’re renting and the girlfriend was renting and Viktoras was renting but Viktoras couldn’t get the benefits, the disability benefits, straightaway because it takes some time. So he was without money, without ... He can’t rent anything. So the girlfriend was giving him money to pay for the flat and maybe he was getting very little. £40 per week? It was all the money he had so the girlfriend was supporting him with the flat and to have some food. Now Viktoras resolved the events that was going on but it’s not really very smooth going so finally ... Again ... (inaudible) ...? It helped the woman, a Chinese woman who was working in GREC. What is her name? I think Ron will know and Viktoras knows the name of the woman. So she helped to find the job through Aberdeen City Council. He got a cleaning job and he start work cleaning the multi-store somewhere in the centre. But he was doing very well. He did very well. He got even some kind of papers from the council for the good work. He just ... not long time ago he got all this cos he was so sick. So it seems the life was getting better. Doesn’t matter that he lost his arm! So he was working, good job. He was doing overtime on Saturdays and ... I think maybe nine months passed. He started bleeding, he started coughing with the blood. So Viktoras called friends to take him to hospital and finally they find out that the cancer’s spread and that time was lung cancer. So we went through all chemotherapy, he lost all his hair. Things was getting better but it was given for him only three months. And that was I think months before Christmas last year. He was supposed to live til somewhere January, February. And now we have December so he did quite well, I think.

Simon:

He’s quite tough.

     

Ilona:

Yeah, he’s quite tough. He’s quite tough. So ... I don’t know what else to say because the time goes and I am involved in different other cases.

     

Simon:

Where was he working the time he was sacked?

     

Ilona:

He was working as I said in Banff. Grampian Chickens or fish factory, it depends where they were getting jobs. But he was staying, I think, in Macduff at that time where the agency found flats for them. Where they were staying, it was overcrowded as usual. And paying quite a lot of money, I think £35 per week each they were paying.

Simon:

Quite a lot of people I’ve met, they’ve said that they’ve found their jobs independently or through family contacts. But you’ve said that Viktoras came through an agency?

     

Ilona:

Yes. It was maybe difficult for these people that came through agencies because some agencies were really bad as they were charging a lot of money. I mean then, people were not getting jobs. Quite another story in Forfar, on Thursday, when I met a man. He came also through the agency. He was complaining that that agency just took the money, that there was no jobs. But after ... One thing, they had the problem because they couldn’t speak. The same with Viktoras, the same with Sveta. All of them who went through the agency, they couldn’t speak English. It’s later on when people already moved in to find the jobs, so for somebody to come, family members or friends, it’s easier. Because they did the first step so for others to come it was easier, and if they had some knowledge of English it was even better. It was easier.

Simon:

Do you think that situation for Lithuanians is different from that of Poles?

     

Ilona:

No, I don’t think so. Yeah, you can argue ... They can argue! But they can’t point and say: “OK, it’s only Polish taken because they are Poles and they think they work better.” Lithuanians will speak about them also bad, but I think it’s just life. Everybody wants jobs. Everybody wants money. Everybody wants to support their family. It’s ... I don’t know. Again, it’s quite difficult. It depends what employer met first, Polish or Lithuanian, and they made their own mind already what they want. If Polish people were working for them quite well, so maybe they want only Polish. And maybe it’s easier for them to find one interpreter for everybody, or maybe one of them will be speaking English so it will be easier for them to communicate than to have a lot of different languages in one place. So I don’t know how it works. It’s quite difficult. You need, I think, to speak to employers. How they were choosing ... It’s quite difficult because I heard ... OK, I was not hearing from Poles about Lithuanians or Latvians but I heard my people complaining about Polish about how: “Oh, they all getting jobs ... la, la, la ... Some of them are lazy.” Yeah, but some of our people could be also lazy. So you can’t just say: “The Poles are really lazy and we are so good working.” No. I don’t think so. I think it’s quite bad, it could be bad to say it this way.

Simon:

As is the case and often the fact, there’s a smaller Lithuanian community and the fact there’s going to be fewer people.

     

Ilona:

Yes, because if you will take two nations as two different nations, we are only three and half with 80% Lithuanians in Lithuania, where Poland is about fifty million. It’s two different things. Even if you will take whole Lithuania, to move three million, we’d still be lost between Poles. So it’s two different things. It seems there’s a lot of Poles here because they are huge country.

Simon:

So, the fact that there seems to be a bigger concentration of Lithuanians in Fraserburgh and Peterhead, do you think that it’s probably just coincidence in terms of how the job market works?

     

Ilona:

Yeah, I think so. It depends who came. Before 2000 there were a lot of illegal immigrants in that place which were Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Ukrainian, Belarussian ... and they were moved here because they were illegally working in that place. But some left, some of them came back. So some of them already knew people in that area, they knew where the jobs are available. Because we got independence in ’91, Lithuania I mean, and all Baltic states. It’s just a different story with Ukraine and Belarus. So some of them they knew so one of the reasons there are more Lithuanians in Fraserburgh and Peterhead, different than the Poles, maybe Poles were not going to these places. They came later on. I don’t know because I never met Poles before 2004.

Simon:

Are the economies different then as well, as Poland is ... as it’s being larger and closer to central Europe?

     

Ilona:

I don’t know, it’s quite difficult to say what is the difference and who’s doing better or not. Seems Poland was getting a lot of money before we got independence. All these movements in Poland and as I know they were building factories or whatever it was. There was a lot of chemicals and a lot of stuff that’s made in Poland and moved to East. Not to the West but to East with a very bad quality. So that already foreign companies before us, before Lithuania, who had. Because all factories now are all sold like in UK, it’s exactly the same story. Just the local people still working for foreigners. There’s nothing left in Lithuania or Poland I think, it’s similar story but it depends how the government works.

Simon:

I was in Poland in ’91 and I saw a lot of Western companies coming in to take over factories.

     

Ilona:

Yeah, it’s exactly the same in Lithuania. As I know a lot about light industry factories, so a lot of factories ... Material, or how you will call. Everything what is with the light industry.

Simon:

Fabricate.

     

Ilona:

Yeah, because I am specialist of light industry anyway so I know a lot about these factories, and our quality was very, very good. But for the foreigners it’s now too expensive. The labour’s too expensive. They’re moving further to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine who is cheaper. Or China maybe? Yeah, but everything is sold. I think we have similar situation with Poland and to say it’s two different things because they are bigger country, we are smaller, and to do a smaller country is easier than a bigger country, they have more problems ... OK, they probably will be bigger than ours but we have I think exactly the same problem.

Simon:

To go back to Viktoras’ situation, if he hadn’t had access to someone like yourself, a translator ...?

     

Ilona:

Yes, because he became ... OK, I can’t say ‘friend’. Like an interpreter, you can’t have ‘friends’ because it’s quite difficult for me because you are so much involved. I have my own family and my own problems and when you start living with somebody’s life, like his case, with two cancers, you ... It’s like he becomes your family member and it’s really difficult. At one point I was not doing only for him work but I always helped. He has always my number. He needed. I always will answer, I always will come and translate without any charging or waiting for council to call somebody, or whatever it was.

Simon:

So it’s a bit like being a doctor in the way you work, in terms of having to have a certain ...

     

Ilona:

Doctor? No I was not a doctor!

     

Simon:

No, in terms of a doctor ... in a way, you’re helping people in need but you can’t get too involved, you have to keep a ...

     

Ilona:

Yeah. To keep some distance. But I was talking to ... He needed some medicine, we went for the medicine. He needed to register with GP because he was changing places, he asked we went to them and sometimes not very well. Meeting social workers, speaking about his benefits ... as I said, it was not going very, very smooth. He was very down and the time for half a year when he was not getting any money at all, he was really very down. He started drinking at one point. It was not good times. But it passed. Sometimes it’s really, really tiring because he’s really attached to you and it’s really difficult. And sometimes then you’re tired because, as I said, I don’t have only him.

Simon:

I was just kind of wondering, if there hadn’t been ... if he hadn’t had the language barriers, what would have happened?

     

Ilona:

We were trying a Chinese girl from GREC, as GREC was running a coffee shop and library in Aberdeen. So he was going there just to make some effort to speak, somehow to learn this English, because people can’t speak for him all the time. We wanted him to be independent because he was doing so well with his artificial arm. At that time he was not working but we wanted him to start using his arm, because if he wanted to get the job with the council he needed to wear the arm, and to speak a bit more. But it was so difficult because I was doing everything for him! (laughs) So the Chinese girl was very strict, said: “No, you’re going and speaking!” So he was trying his best, he learned, but still it was a lot of helping hands around so he still ... OK, he is better than it was before but still doesn’t speak English too well. OK, obviously as a lot of Lithuanians, they can maybe understand a lot more because, being some years in a country, they can understand more and they can say ... And one thing of with this ex-Soviet ... how to say ... ‘mentality’ maybe! But we were afraid to say something if we don’t know properly. We were afraid. So in this case we were not speaking, we were like fish. We can maybe understand but we are afraid to speak. And I was telling them: “Speak, it doesn’t matter how. You have plenty of mistakes but speak, in this case you will start speaking!” I remember myself when I was doing English from the first class, and when I left school ... Oh, it was a long time ago when I start working here. I was knowing quite well English, it was difficult for me to start speaking. So I can understand them without knowing a lot of words to start speaking. So I can understand what was going on in their heads.

Simon:

I spoke with a Polish guy yesterday who is working on farms, he’s quite old, and he said ... he doesn’t speak English at all ...

     

Ilona:

Yes, especially for the old people, it will be ...

     

Simon:

He can understand instructions but can’t ...

     

Ilona:

Yeah because with all this ... I think it’s to do with the ex-Soviet thing, that it’s quite difficult for people to step through the barrier and to start speaking. I went to heritage museum in Motherwell which had a very good show about how people came in the end of nineteenth century, beginning of twentieth century? So it was exactly the same. It was written how the Scottish people saw us in their eyes. So they were writing about Lithuanians, about how they’re all in the groups and speak, so I can understand why. At that time, nobody was speaking any English. Especially in Motherwell with some kind of dialect, nobody could understand them! So they were keeping in the group like they do now. If it’s in a factory, the group, they will have somebody who speaks little bit so he will be going to speak for everybody. So the rest, they will not even try to speak. And especially if you’re a soldier: “No way I’m speaking.”

Simon:

Do you think ... just taking it back to what you said before, does that lead to a situation where there’s exploitation?

     

Ilona:

It so depends. It could happen anywhere, it doesn’t matter ... I don’t think it’s a language barrier. It depends. If the employer is looking to use somebody, they will use. Doesn’t matter if they understand or not. But I think there’s a lot of good employers who, in the likes of these migrant workers who work hard, no. I don’t think it’s a point. It’s my ... maybe somebody has completely different views.

Simon:

I’m getting a sense of ... (inaudible) ... from different people. A lot seems to depend on the employees and the employer and the attitude of the employer ...

     

Ilona:

Yeah, it’s the same as you people. You will get good and bad employers, so I don’t think it’s to do with language, because the people who came here, they want to work, they want to do a lot of hours and they will try their best. I know even the competition that is in the factories. Sometimes they are saying: “Who can understand what the locals are speaking?” and just even laugh, how they want to work and show to the employer how they can be good. Sometimes like children in the kindergarten, how they want to show how they are good.

Simon:

So you’ve been in Scotland nine years?

     

Ilona:

Uh huh.

     

Simon:

At what point did you start doing the kind of work you’re doing now?

     

Ilona:

Maybe six years ago. I started with Home Office. It was advert in Press & Journal. I applied, I went through courses and assessments and then in 2004 started. So I’ve had plenty of work.

Simon:

Over that time, have you noticed many changes and what would you say the key changes have been?

     

Ilona:

Changes in what?

     

Simon:

In, I guess, maybe in the kind of situations you’re brought in to work with or in terms of in attitudes of people, or in terms of how much people need help.

     

Ilona:

Mmm ... not really. I think the situation didn’t change at all because somebody leaves, somebody comes, that’s again not language. It’s all ... maybe it’s better because employers already know about migrant workers. They know what to expect from them. I think it’s easier for migrant workers now and employers trying to make it easier for themselves and for the workers. Yes, it is change. Yes, it is. I think for the best, yeah. It was things ... exploitation, yeah. It was exploitation. Even why it came the law, two years ago about gangmasters, I don’t know if Ron was telling you?

Simon:

Yeah, I’ve been in touch with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

     

Ilona:

OK. Yeah, it was nasty things going on but because it’s not my job I was not involved. But yeah, it was ... especially when it was before 2004. It was a lot of it going on.

Simon:

Did you deal with people who were illegal immigrants then?

     

Ilona:

Yes, I was dealing with them also.

     

Simon:

So, I was wondering how there’s a difference. Because of the fact that they ...

     

Ilona:

Yes, it was and it took some years to change but still is not changed. It was also a few years that the landlords need to register their flats with the council and they are suitable for the people to stay, because I saw the flats in Peterhead and Fraserburgh. They were just terrible. Or in Torry or wherever, in Aberdeen also. The same. But because the councils didn’t have a lot of money and people to check all these accommodation so I don’t think they checked. I don’t know how many they checked, 20%? I don’t think it’s even half was checked. It came the law but it doesn’t work.

Simon:

And if you can’t implement a law then it’s ...

     

Ilona:

Yeah, I don’t think so. I still know that people live in overcrowded places but why they live because it’s less money to pay for the rent or accommodation, but the last ... what I heard was £50 a week where it was £35 before. I don’t know the conditions, maybe it’s better conditions than they were staying before. But £35 was to start with.

Simon:

Do you know, if there is people who were illegal immigrants before 2004, were any of them able to ‘legalise’ themselves, become legal migrants after that?

     

Ilona:

They came back. They went to Lithuania and they came back. I know people who came back, there’s a few of them here.

Simon:

One thing I mentioned about the group in Banff. I don’t know if you’ve encountered much of that at all but there does seem to be, at least from ... Probably because there’s a higher percentage of people amongst ... the Polish community, there’s an increasing amount of organisations that have come out of the communities themselves so they provide a kind of social meeting point and ...

     

Ilona:

And it’s easier for them because it’s a lot of them. I was going to Banff to primary school, there was one Lithuanian family with three children, but the woman knows Polish so I think they manage with the same Polish interpreter and for the Lithuanian man and woman and all Poles there so ... But, as I said, Polish nation is big. Maybe they have jobs there, I don’t know why they went back.

Simon:

From the Poles, it seems to be that a few people came earlier on, and through family links it’s sort of ...

     

Ilona:

Oh yeah, it’s ...

     

Simon:

People started to come to where there was already connections which I think is quite a common pattern.

     

Ilona:

Yeah. It’s for everybody the same. Somebody made the move and somebody just followed. And who followed, it was easier for them. They knew where they were going, they knew that somebody is waiting. They knew that they won’t be on the street, they don’t need to worry. Because the first people who were coming, they would be told by agencies: “OK, you come to Aberdeen. You take the bus to Peterhead,” and sometimes somebody not meeting in Peterhead! And they sitting on the street waiting for something! It was a lot of lies going on anyway, and exploitation, but it is changed.

Simon:

Do you think the situation with the agencies has changed now? Because of the issue with gangmasters has been addressed?

     

Ilona:

Maybe. Who wanted to work properly, because agency also wants to make money, so they made an effort. They did everything legally. I don’t know, I think they did. You need to ask people who work for agencies. Yeah, but I always say when I meet people: “If you can learn the language, you can get the better jobs,” because some come with the good qualifications but they can’t get the jobs because of their language. They’re not so brave and ask. They can’t read an advert. They can’t go for interview. But it is ... I know young guys found jobs in oil companies in Turriff. It’s not far from Torry. It’s just next to ... Area is in Turriff all times where guys found the jobs with oil companies. In the yards they are working.

Simon:

Yeah, I’ve heard of Lithuanians in the gas terminals as well.

     

Ilona:

It just all is working in ... Some of them, they go through agencies, local agencies, just to get in the company. After the company see they do a good job, they just leave the agency and go sign the contract with these oil companies. But not everybody ... (inaudible) ... It was one Lithuanian in a newspaper, he has written he made the strike, put the tent in front of one of the oil companies buildings. It was, I think, a few years ago. It was Lithuanian guy! (laughs) It was drastic move. I think he got the job. I don’t know all the detail but it was drastic, to put the tent and sleep ... Just a man looking for work.