Working for a pound an hour: An immigration detainee’s perspective

My name is John [name changed to protect identity] and I was detained under immigration powers from April 2018 until November 2018. I worked for around seven months in Brook House IRC as a cleaner and this is my story.

I was detained at Brook House IRC despite having an ongoing asylum claim because of my fear of being returned to Jamaica. This asylum claim is still ongoing and I am waiting for a decision from the Home Office. After about one week of being detained at Brook House I decided to start work as a cleaner.

Detention is a difficult place to be when you don’t know how long you are going to be there, so I was looking for something productive which I could do to pass the time. When you are detained for as long as I was, not knowing when or if you will be released, it is really important to have something productive to do to take your mind off your difficulties. I was also looking for ways to earn money so that I could buy essential items, such as phone credit and food. I only have my mother in the United Kingdom but she did not have very much money to send me.

I spent about £10 per month on phone credit so that I could speak to my family and solicitors. I also needed money to buy food because what we were served in the centre was not healthy or nice to eat. I would prefer to eat just a can of tuna than the food we were served. I also went to the gym so I bought energy drinks. I know this does not sound like much. However, the option of what to have for dinner or to be able to buy an energy drink is a small luxury which made life in detention more manageable. The Home Office would only give us 71p per day so I could not have afforded this had I not been working in detention.

When I arrived at Brook House, other detainees told me that you could work and so I went to speak to a detention officer. I explained that I had previously got qualifications for cleaning and decorating. I signed up in the library and was very quickly given a cleaning job. After a short wait for a security check from the Home Office, I started work as a cleaner.

I worked seven days a week in D wing. Detainees were given one floor each to clean and I was given the ground floor. I also had to clean the communal shower area and rooms when detainees moved out. My first shift started after breakfast at 9am. I would clean the dining area which was often left in a terrible state after mealtimes with food all over the floor and dirty plates left on the table. My second and third shifts were the same as this but after lunch and dinner. My fourth and main shift was in the evening. I had to do a full clean of the communal areas on the ground floor which took about an hour and a half to complete. On top of these shifts I was also expected to clean throughout the day. If there was a spillage or the bins needed emptying, detention staff would come and find me. In the end, I started to clean up throughout the day in the communal areas as I knew that I would just have to do this later anyway. Sometimes, the bins needed emptying up to eight times a day. I always took pride in the fact that I did a good job and received positive feedback from detention staff about the work that I was doing.

It is hard to quantify the number of hours which I worked. I was just told that I needed to get my job done. I was paid £4 per day for my work and I now understand that the Home Office have capped wages for paid work in detention at £1 per hour. When I raised my pay with detention staff, they told me that the Home Office only allowed them to pay us £30 per week. This is based on us working no more than 30 hours per week. As far as I was aware, there were no external cleaners who helped the detainee workers clean. I certainly never saw any. The communal areas of the detention centre were, in my experience, cleaned solely by those of us who were being detained.

Before my detention, I worked as a specialist cleaner and decorator in the UK where I was paid around £9 an hour for very similar work. This made me feel even more humiliated because I knew what this work was worth outside the detention walls. I felt that the Home Office were only paying me £1 an hour because they could get away with it. I felt completely exploited by this situation. I was good at my job, as many detention officers told me, and deserved to be paid more for the job that I did. I know how valuable that work is for the detention centre and know how much an external cleaner would have been paid to do the same job. There was no opportunity for me to get a pay rise, no matter how good my work was. I felt that this was exploitative and can only describe what I experienced as akin to slave labour.

I think that immigration detainees should be properly remunerated for the work that we do. If I had not cleaned that detention centre wing every day, it would have been in an absolutely disgusting state. My role was critical in keeping the detention centre hygienic and safe. I think that £1 per hour wages are exploitative and that the important work detainees do should be reflected in their pay.

Image Credit: Oliver Hale on Unsplash