Sunday, 12 November 2006
Mihai the Builder (can he fix it? etc etc)
Alex Horne - 12th November 2006
I've known Mihai, our Romanian representative, for a couple of weeks now. Our bathroom ceiling had had a hole in it for several months and I can't even hit a nail with a hammer, let alone mend a roof, so after I'd dawdled for far too long my wife asked around at work to see if anyone could recommend a builder/real man. A colleague immediately replied saying he'd recently managed to find a guy who was talented, nice and reasonably priced. I gave him a call and he gave us a practical quote in a matter of days. Simple. Everyone happy?
Well, we certainly are. But then we're the lucky customers of a man doing a good job for an affordable fee and I no longer have to worry about breaking our home. And we're not the builders who are used to charging a slightly higher fee for the same work and who now find themselves undercut by a sudden influx of foreign workers. Coming over here, taking our jobs…
And then we're also not part of that legal influx of foreign workers taking jobs for less money who have swiftly found themselves the butt of a whole new raft of xenophobic jokes. For while Mihai is certainly content to be able to make a decent living over here, he's keen to point out that it's not particularly easy to be an Eastern European immigrant in London right now.
While Mihai repaired our bathroom hole, repainted various walls and fixed several cracks, the two of us barely spoke. He would have seen me walking up and down the street clutching a folder covered in flags or staring at my computer, trying to find out how to meet an Arab on the internet, but we never really chatted until the final day of the job when I finally plucked up the courage to explain our mission. I didn't want him to think I was too odd before the hole was not a hole.
Thankfully, he was eager to help. In fact, he seemed glad to have an opportunity to speak his mind about London, the UK and immigration, issues all close to his heart. Because Mihai is frustrated by the Eastern Europeans' current lot.
He's lived in London five years longer than me, landing nine years ago on a plane from Piatra Neamt. In January next year Romania and Bulgaria will officially join the EU but Mihai managed to secure a much sought-after visa a decade early due to the fact that he was three years into a physics degree. It was understood that he would soon return home to complete the course.
Now, however, his life is in London. From his first seasonal job picking strawberries, he moved on to working as a tiler for two years and managed to qualify as an electrician in his spare time. By the time the tiling company he worked for went bust he'd left his number with enough clients to get a decent amount of private work. Through diligence, good results and word of mouth he's been able to make his living doing general building all over the capital ever since.
So things are going well for Mihai. But he can't ignore the suspicion that many people here look down on Eastern Europeans like him. In typically articulate English he admits he's obviously subjective, but believes they're providing a crucial service that is largely ignored by the rest of the population. They're the engine of the country, supplying cheap labour on demand, but one that many seem to mistrust, mock or fear.
Even on his way to my house today, he tells me, he wondered what would happen if all the foreign immigrants stopped working for one day. Nothing would happen. The country would grind to a halt. Surely then people would realise how valuable they are?
Mihai himself is extremely hard-working but not exceptionally so. Eastern Europeans here quickly cultivated a reputation for industrious graft. Out of the 600,000 Polish immigrants to have arrived since their acceptance into the EU two years ago, only a hundred have sought benefits – that's a tiny 0.02%. Instead they do jobs many Brits turn their noses up at, whilst paying taxes and spending their money in our economy. If it wasn't for the Eastern Europeans it is often argued that interest rates would have risen a lot earlier than next January and far sharper.
Interestingly, he's happy for people to think of the Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants as 'all the same'. He says they are all happy to work for less money and do a good job, considering the quality of life and opportunities they gain in comparison to life back home. What he objects to is the sneaking feeling that they're not to be trusted, that they're here to make a quick buck, that they're cynically using our country for their gain. He understands why British labourers might be narked but it's not the builders giving Polish workers a bad press. It's the media middle classes. And it's very hard for the Eastern European voice to be heard over the growing anti-immigration grumble. He says they're the new Irish - the subject of supposedly harmless jokes that betray a suspicious nation.
Of course large-scale immigration is not without its problems. Schools, for instance, have been forced to spend extra money teaching thousands of new Polish kids to speak English, diverting money from other areas where funds are desperately needed. But this is the price a country must pay for a willing, able and affordable workforce. In terms of jobs being stolen, it's true that some have found their working lives turned upside down thanks to what they see as unfair competition, but competitive pricing does not necessarily spell disaster.
Mihai arrived well before the Polish arrival. He'd already started working for himself and his livelihood was at as much risk as anybody else's. But he says there's plenty of work, especially in London, and he soon built up enough contacts to stay busy. In fact, for the last five or six years, he's been working non-stop. He remembers a fortnight without work a couple of years ago when he feared his luck had finally run out so sought employment distributing leaflets for an advertising company. He was given two huge boxes of fliers and told to put them through people's letterboxes (something that I should really think about doing while on my next door-to-door round). Those two boxes are still in his hall. The phone soon rang again and he's barely had a break ever since.
So Mihai is here for good. He married a Romanian girl in Tottenham some years ago and last week hosted (I have no idea if that's the right verb) one of his two kids' christenings. He feels he's got as much to offer the country as anyone else and has earned his place in London. It's very hard to disagree with him. Especially when he's just performed a miracle in your bathroom.