Report finds a third of Catholic migrants are paid less than minimum wage
BY MARK GREAVES
CATHOLIC MIGRANTS in London are being forced to endure Dickensian working conditions and squalid accommodation, according to an alarming new study commissioned by the capital's bishops.
The study reveals that a third of all Catholic migrants in London are being paid less than the minimum wage, which is currently £5.35 an hour.
It compares the current situation to that of London in the 19th century, quoting Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman's remark in 1864 that "close under the abbey walls of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and courts, alleys and slums”, where Catholics struggled without aid against extreme poverty.
The report tells of Catholics who arrive in London and end up sleeping on the streets or on the floors of hallways aia," restaurants.
These migrants — from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe — are exploited by landlords and forced to live in cramped conditions, sharing their bathroom with dozens of other people.
A fifth of all migrants surveyed were sharing their room with more than three people, while others were forced to share their beds and sleep in shifts.
One in six Catholic migrants — 25,000 out of an estimated total of 150,000 — are here illegally, according to the Von Hiigel Institute, the research centre that carried out the study. In many parts of London, the report said, the number of "irregular" Catholic migrants seemed much higher than in typical migrant populations.
It found that illegal immigrants made up the vast majority of the congregations in at least three London parishes.
The report said: 'This is a reality that impacts well beyond the ethnic chaplaincies and cannot be reduced to a 'minority' fringe. Today 'irregularity' is a core experience of baptised Catholic Londoners."
Migrants who arrived in Britain recently and do not speak good English are easily exploited by employers and landlords, the report explained.
It quoted a Lithuanian woman who worked illegally in a factory and was paid only £3.50 an hour. If any of the workers asked for a raise, she added, they were fired.
"The supervisors treated us like dirt," she said. "I could never imagine that people could treat their fellow human beings so appallingly. We were afraid to say a word against them, or else they could 'sack' us for two or three days for punishment.
"I remember looking at the sky and, seeing a plane, bursting into tears because I wanted to go back home so badly."
The report quoted a 50year-old Brazilian man who cleaned dishes for 15 hours a day. six days a week, and was paid less than the minimum wage. Another Lithuanian woman said that her landlord employed all of his tenants, and threatened to fire them if they tried to find other accommodation or complained about the living conditions.
According to the report, migrants living in London suffered from isolation and loneliness. Almost half reported some form of depression.
Of all the baptised Catholics who were surveyed, two thirds claimed they attended church at least once a week, and the "vast majority" thought the Church was the best institution to tackle their isolation.
The report said that the most vulnerable migrants were likely to turn to the Church for help rather than to the Government, trade unions or the market. They regarded the Church as "a refuge, a harbour of hope and worship where the idea of a Eucharistic feast is also grounded in lived community".
Out of 27 homeless Poles surveyed, almost all claimed to pray in their local church at least once a week. But one of the most common responses among those interviewed was the fear that the London bishops' words of support for migrants would not be followed by action.
The report said that the Church had responded positively to the crisis, but had sometimes been "overwhelmed" by the scale of the challenge.
In some cases, parishes had actually worsened the isolation of migrants and pushed them further away from mainstream British life.
In one parish. the report said, migrants were the largest group in the congregation and yet were "hectored" about the need to integrate with a community that had already collapsed.
Migrants repeatedly complained that "indigenous" Catholics — including bishops and priests — had made "disparaging comments" about forms of Catholicism that deviated from the English norm.
The report also said that those working in the Catholic voluntary sector felt "inadequately supported". Church policies, it said, struggled to keep up with the changing situation.
The Von Hugel Institute study, which was commissioned in May 2006 and funded by the London dioceses, surveyed more than 1,000 migrants from 70 different countries.
It also involved interviews and focus groups. Meetings were held with priests, ethnic chaplaincies, representatives from Catholic agencies and religious orders, and one bishop.
The report. entitled The Ground of Justice: The Report of a Pastoral Research Enquiry into the Needs of Migrants in London's Catholic Community, offers a "shopping list" of recommendations which the dioceses can choose to adopt or ignore.
But days after the study had been released the Von Hiigel Institute, based at St Edmund's College, Cambridge. issued a statement referring to attempts to undermine its findings.
The statement insisted that the Von Hugel Institute was not a "rogue body" and said it was "delighted" at the way the bishops had responded to the report. Francis Davis, one of the report's authors, said he was defending the institute against attempts to portray it as "a silly little Leftwing group trying to capture the bishops' agenda".
Cardinal Corrnac MurphyO'Connor of Westminster, Archbishop Kevin McDonald of Southwark and Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood said in a statement that they would "take time" to reflect on the report and consider how best to respond to it.
The statement added: "In the meantime let us all affirm that migrants and their families remain a pastoral priority in our own lives, in the life of the Catholic community and beyond."