By Victoria von Waldersee
For 20 years Maria Luisa has cleaned the house of one family. Every day she spends a good four to six hours in their home, dusting off their personal belongings, witnessing their day to day lives, and probably spending more time in the house than the stroppy teenage son; “but they never talk to me,” she sighs. “When I come in, they leave the room, or simply act as though I’m not there. How am I ever supposed to learn English if no-one speaks to me?”
Maria Luisa’s case exemplifies many of the problems facing the over 100,000-strong Latin American community in London today. Trapped in a cleaning job with no prospects of rising up in the job market due to international labour law, many Latin Americans qualified for far more sophisticated jobs wind up cleaning the same house for years on end.
Snayra Vergara is an English speaking sociology professor in Colombia with years of experience in social work, teaching, and community projects; however, none of this seemed to matter as she applied for countless jobs in the UK suited to her CV, and was perpetually declined on the grounds that her references were not from the UK and therefore not valid. Six months in cleaning were more than enough for Snayra, who quit to volunteer at Carila Latin American Welfare Group, a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting the rights of London’s Latin American community. Despite ensuing difficulty to make ends meet she at least felt dignified by the work she was doing – helping others in her situation understand British labour and immigration law. She is not alone in her problems; ‘No Longer Invisible’, the most comprehensive report on the London’s Latin community to date, states that only 17% of Latin Americans were in managerial or professional jobs in May 2011 despite the fact that over 30% held managerial jobs in Latin America.
Discrimination has been described by Latin Americans as a severe issue – over 70% feel it holds them back in their day to day lives.Colombian women in particular have expressed anger over the prejudices held towards them; “as soon as we say we are from Colombia, people immediately associate us with prostitutes, and do not respect us,” complains Alba. According to a BBC-cited British Social Survey asking 3000 people their opinion on how the country is run, 51% of Britons would like to see immigration reduce ‘a lot’, a figure that has risen 12% since 1991. An additional 24% would like to see immigration reduce ‘a little’.
‘No Longer Invisible’ reveals that 40% of Latin American workers undergo workplace abuse and exploitation and 11% are paid less than the national minimum wage – a proportion 10 times higher than the average rate for the British population₅. The language barrier plays a significant part in issues of discrimination – immigrants are often accused of refusing to learn English, instead forming social circles of only other Latinos and cutting themselves off from British society. Learning English in England may seem a laughably easy task; however, there are more difficulties than meet the eye. Immigrants having difficulty with documentation due to bureaucracy and financial troubles are unable to access certain courses where proof of residence in the UK is required.
Costs of courses at language schools are high, and organisations who offer courses for free are having their funds drastically cut. Even if they find a class which would suit their level and financial situation, they will most likely be unable to attend as they work antisocial hours to make ends meet. Understandably, Latin Americans will thus often retreat into the comfort of their native community and culture.
In the context of the economic crisis, resentment towards immigrants has risen for a variety of reasons. Most prominent is the fear that immigrants are stealing jobs and the worry that among the drastic cuts being made to welfare under the current government, immigrants are taking a chunk out of the already scarce amount available in benefits to the British population.
However, a ‘Fullfact’ study demonstrates that only 6.6% of working-age non-UK nationals claimed a DWP working age benefit, compared to 16.6% of working-age UK nationals. Additionally, ‘No Longer Invisible’ states that only one in five Latin Americans have ever been to a general practitioner or claimed welfare benefits from the state. Those that do claim benefits will generally do so in the form of housing or council benefit and tax credits. Second generation Latin Americans are one of the most productive immigrant groups in the UK, boasting an 85% employment rate and refuting the notion that immigrants will come into Britain and sponge off of the welfare state.
In 2001, London housed around 2800 Latin Americans. Within 10 years, that figure quadrupled, and as of May 2011, 113,500 Latin Americans are estimated to live in the capital. Integration and discrimination problems or not, the Latin American community has become a staple part of London’s migrant population, and its needs must therefore be addressed.
Carila Latin American Welfare Group, Latin American Women’s Rights Services, the Ibero-American Alliance, and Latin America House are but a few of London’s institutions dedicated to helping Latin Americans settle in the city, offering services ranging from translation and interpretation to signposting and legal advice.
Trust for London is currently in the process of setting up an umbrella organisation to better coordinate the efforts of these institutions as each one is cutting down its services due to drastic cuts in funding. According to Cathy McIlwaine, Professor of Geography at Queen Mary (University of London) and an expert on Latin American migration to the UK, the aim of this organisation will not be to ask for specific sums of cash as much as to influence policy relating to Latin American immigrants and get them recognised as a significant portion of the migrant population.
However, arguably just as important as the professional advice and advocacy work such organisations conduct is the emotional support they give to immigrants searching for a friendly face and a word of counsel. Saturday schools, cultural outings and informal get-togethers provide a welcome distraction from the stress of everyday life in a foreign country, and Roman Catholic churches are flooded with Latin Americans.
However, massive gaps in the support network remain. “The days of specific groups getting help from central government are over,” says Professor McIlwaine. Demand for labour migrants can be met by Europeans, meaning the central government has “no interest” in the Latin American community; instead, “support comes from local government.” Southwark recently became the first borough to recognise Latin Americans as an ethnic categorisation in forms; everywhere else, they are forced to tick the box saying “other”, despite the fact that the size of the community is comparable with recognised migrant groups such as Polish workers.
This lack of formal recognition creates difficulties relating to documentation and acquiring legal status in the UK. Not enough has been done to clarify the ramifications of the recently enforced Welfare Reform Bill on the lives of the Latin American community, leaving them uncertain about what actions they should take to avoid financial troubles. As a result, Carila and other aforementioned organisations are forced to bear the burden, no easy feat when their own budgets are being slashed.
Few cities enjoy the international reputation of London, and few cities deserve it; its unique character, far-reaching history, and wealth of cultures outweigh many other places across the globe. Its migrant population plays an important part in this; from restaurants and clubs to bookstores and national festivals, London’s immigrant offer its native population all kinds of entertainment.
The Latin American community not only provides the city with salsa, samba and delicious food; as proven above, it also contributes productively to the British economy.
If other London boroughs would follow Southwark’s example and recognise Latin Americans as a significant part of the migrant population, more private donors would give to organisations like LAWRS and Carila, and gradually, the problems facing the community could be eradicated. The Latinos are in London to stay, and they need to be treated as such.
(Victoria von Waldersee is an undergraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, majoring in Chinese and Development Studies. Her particular interests lie in social welfare, conflict resolution, and establishing coherence in the development world between organisations from different countries. Victoria can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)