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Ukrainian Refugees Exploited: ‘In Britain, We Have No Rights – We Are Nothing At All’

Byline Times speaks to Ukrainian women taken advantage of in the UK’s cleaning and hospitality sectors

Photo: Peter Dazeley/Alamy

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Lesia arrived in the UK from Kyiv last April, having fled her home in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite previously working as a civil servant, she knew that her limited English would make it hard for her to find a job in Britain, but she was willing to take anything to get by. 

She soon came across a cleaning company called Golden Hands Cleaning, which was advertising jobs on the social media site Telegram. “I decided to try it,” she said. “It was a little scary, but I was glad I could be useful.”

She never met anyone from Golden Hands Cleaning in person. She would receive work assignments through its online platform, travel to customers’ houses, and do the cleaning using their products. 

But at the end of her first month, Lesia was not paid. She raised this with the company, which told her it was experiencing some financial problems but assured her that she would be paid soon. 

Quickly, Golden Hands Cleaning stopped replying to Lesia’s inquiries altogether. She reached out to several other women who had worked there – also Ukrainians – and discovered that they hadn’t been paid either. 

“They didn’t want to fight it, but I sent a message to the labour dispute resolution organisation and then I filed a petition to the court for the payment of my debt,” Lesia said. On contacting an employment tribunal, Lesia learned the company had been dissolved and there was no way of accessing the money she was owed. 

“I was overwhelmed with hopelessness,” she told Byline Times. “I could not believe such a thing could happen in this country.”

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Lesia is not the only Ukrainian refugee who has experienced exploitation in the workplace in the UK. Byline Times has spoken to three other women who have been taken advantage of in the British cleaning and hospitality sectors by means of unpaid trial shifts and termination of employment without payment.

Yuliia and her daughter Maria came to the UK from Sumy, a city in the north-east of Ukraine, last May. After applying for more than a hundred jobs, Yuliia finally secured a trial shift as a kitchen assistant at the Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca.

“I spent four hours peeling kilos and kilos of broccoli and sweet potatoes”, she told Byline Times. When she finished, her hands were raw and almost bleeding. 

She asked when she might hear back about the job, but was told the restaurant had so many applicants that it would be doing trial shifts for several more weeks. She never got a response. 

Yuliia completed two more trial shifts – one at a café and one at a restaurant – where she spent four hours cleaning tables without any supervision or instruction. In both cases, she waited two months to be told that she had been rejected from a job.

She told Byline Times: “It was dreadful – they used me and no one told me anything. I lost my time, I lost my money on transportation. I was just free labour to them.”

Yuliia’s daughter, Maria – who was just 18 when she arrived in the UK – had a similar experience to her mother. She was offered a trial shift at a bakery in south-west London but, when she arrived, there were no senior members of staff present. 

“There were just two girls my age working, no manager or supervisor to see how I was dealing with the customers or managing the work”, she said. “I was promised they would be in touch with me in a few days but I waited three weeks for their reply. It was very unfair.”

A spokesperson for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service said: “Unpaid trial shifts may be used if they are part of a genuine recruitment process where an employer is determining whether a candidate is suitable for a job.”

According to Acas, a trial shift may not be genuine if it lasts longer than is needed to assess a person for the job, if the work is unsupervised, or if it is used to benefit the employer.

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Another Maria came to the UK with her mother in March 2022. She spent the first few months completing her studies, which had been abruptly disrupted by the outbreak of war. In July, she got a job as a receptionist at a boutique beauty salon in London.

She worked there for two weeks before receiving a call from her manager to say that her contract would be terminated immediately. Maria spent the next two months fighting for the pay that she was owed for her work. The salon wouldn’t respond to her messages, so she had to involve the Jobcentre and Acas in the dispute. 

“I was frustrated and disappointed,” Maria said. “At the time, I was living in temporary accommodation. The conditions weren’t great and I was hoping this job would help move me and my mum to our own place. I never expected to be treated like that at work.”

Maria and Yuliia have since moved back to Ukraine to be closer to their family. They regularly hear explosions throughout the night and live under constant fear of shelling.

Reflecting on their time seeking work in the UK, Yuliia said: “We would have never come to UK if there was no war in our country and it’s disgusting that UK employers use Ukrainians who suffered from the war as free labour. We came to save our children and to find a job just so we can live, but in Britain we have no rights, no privileges. We are nothing at all.”

Wahaca told Byline Times that it is conducting an investigation into the allegation of the inappropriate use of a trial shift last July.

“As with any restaurant business, we do need to conduct a trial in a realistic working environment, so we can see how competent and efficient someone is with regards to the job they are applying for,” a spokesperson said. “We do not do this to save money. We have clear procedures in place relating to the use of trial shifts in our job application process.”

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