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Non Fiction

Chinese Whisper – The true story behind Britain’s hidden army of labour

You know the people in this book.

You’ll remember the harassed waitresses from your local Chinese restaurant. You’ve noticed those builders across the street working funny hours and without helmets. You’ve bought bootleg DVDs from the DVD sellers.  You’ve eaten the lettuce they picked, or bought the microwave they assembled. The word ‘cockle pickers’, ‘Morecambe Bay’, ‘Chinese illegals found dead in lorry in Dover’ will ring a bell.

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.

While some of us are worrying about business ethics and if our clothes are possibly made from sweatshops operating in India, China or Vietnam, we failed to look into the sweatshops which are operating inside Britain.

The exploitation of these Chinese workers always happened in the following process chain:

  1. They scrambled for loans from relatives and friends and paid an estimate between £18,000 to £22,000 to the middlemen (snakehead) to get them to the UK.
  2. They are bundled up in inhumane condition (in a boat, lorry) to get across the borders. Some of them died before they reached their destination.
  3. They are moved to accommodation provided by the employer / agent, usually pay estimate £50 per week for a bed space of mattress in a room shared with many others illegals.
  4. They queue up at temp recruitment agencies to get whatever job which is available each day, and they have to pay agency fees for every new job they seek, and bribe the recruitment agent to give them preferential treatment to secure a job for the day.
  5. They are then transported to work sites in the morning, short half hour breaks, and transported to another site to work the night shift.
  6. They are paid pittance. At times they are not paid to the equivalent hours they worked or not paid at all, and in a brothel, if it gets busted by the police, the workers do not get paid either. They then spend their hard earned money to pay the agency, their loans back home and their family at home. Sending between £666 (10k RMB) to £900, everything that they earned to their family.
  7. If they are injured in the course of work, A&E hospital unit might treat them, but they have no access to GP or follow-up medical treatments. Many illegal workers developed asthma and high blood pressure in an appalling working conditions and succumb to black market medication to treat themselves.
  8. These illegals are prone to robbery, as the robbers knew that the illegals can’t report them.
  9. They live in fear of police raid. If they are caught by the police, the next stop will be detention centre for illegal immigrants. Chances for approval for asylum seekers are less than 3%.

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.

To give you an idea of how they are paid:

  • A basket of leek is paid 80p per basket, the writer spent 4 hours picking 4 baskets and earned £3.20 demoralising wages.
  • 700 lettuces are cut each day, a £35 for a 12-hour day, work out at under £3 per hour. Minimum wage at 2002 was £4.77 per hour then.
  • The Chinese restaurant workers are paid a base-rate of £5 per day and if they don’t get tips they don’t get paid extra.

The book mentioned locations where I personally witnessed the exploitation of cheap labour, in Chinese restaurants, Longsight in Manchester. I always wonder what motivate illegal migrants to risk everything they have, even their lives, to come work in a hostile working conditions. I think it is desperate poverty that drives these people to Britain’s shores, and a good dose of naivety, ambition and optimism to ensure a better life for their families at home.

‘For every pound I’m making here, I always feel I’m sinking further to my knees.’ His generosity and his enthusiasm for life have been crushed out of him. Now he’s reserved and untrusting man.

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 ludicruously meagre wages.

Perhaps the thing that made me most angry was the snakehead smugglers, gang masters and employers who are of the same ethnicity and who had suffered the same journey of being a migrant before has a big hand in exploiting these new group of immigrants. The eagerness of Chinese co-patriots to join in this exploitation and the established Chinese communities’ tacit collusion in the system is one that I could not stomach. By publishing this book Hsiao-Hung Pai has faced threats of violence and legal action from members of the Chinese community for revealing their complicity in this exploitation.

These exploitations begin at home, in China. 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.

Strong measures from the policy maker should be implemented and enforced to safeguard Britain’s border; but once the immigrants made it to Britain’s shores, it is only humane to offer basic care and services, and if there is a labour gap in the country, to legalise their status in the country; or face immediate deportation. The idea is to deter exploitation of cheap labour within the country.

Rating: 4/5

This book is well researched and told in first hand experience as an undercover. The writer also followed up with the migrants’ progress after a few years. They have paid up some debts but life is pretty much the same, waiting for the day they could earn enough to pay up all their debts and some money to take home.

I feel humbled by the stories of the immigrants. I hope there will come a time they earn enough and return to their countries to start some business and a new life. The only thing they wanted to do was to provide a better life for their families, and going abroad to seek a better work is their only know-how.

‘As breadwinners for our families, we want to maintain our dignity. While having to sell out labour, we don’t want to sell out basic self-respect.’


More 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)

About the Writer: 

Hsiao-Hung Pai (b. Taipei, Taiwan, 1968) is a writer on migrant labour issues, this book was short-listed for the 2009 Orwell Prize. Pai has lived in the UK since 1991, and holds master’s degrees from the University of Wales, University of Durham and the University of Westminster. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei County.

She contributes to The Guardian newspaper and many UK-Chinese publications.


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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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