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Exploited and abused Polish sisters win £16,000 for hotel ordeal 

Article from the Scotsman

IT WAS supposed to be a new dawn, a fresh start in a land of opportunity to escape the poverty of their formative years in Warsaw. Bright and well-educated, Joanna and Lydia Wisniewska were among the thousands of migrants who left their native Poland to carve out a better future for themselves in Scotland.

When they were offered jobs in the picturesque Clachan of Glendaruel on the Cowal Peninsula, they could not believe their luck. The owners of the seven-bedroom Glendaruel Hotel a Mecca for tourists and shooting parties, offered them £180 a week with free board and lodging - a salary that dwarfed anything they had been offered back home.

But, within months of arriving in the tiny hamlet, their dreams were shattered. The women faced a back-breaking daily regime, regularly putting in a 75-hour week and managing only a few hours' sleep, and they were branded "Polish slaves" and "Polish bitches" by the hotel boss.

Yesterday, the sisters' story became public as an employment tribunal awarded them and their friend Sylvia Pionkowska more than £16,000 compensation after winning a landmark race discrimination case.

"Like lots of Polish people, we came here to make a new life," Joanna, 21, told The Scotsman. "But we were treated like slaves. Nobody expects to be treated that badly."

The sisters' Glasgow lawyer, Alexander McBurney, said this was not an isolated case.

"I'm getting a lot of Polish clients who are not getting their rights. A lot of them are being exploited...they are working long hours or not getting paid," he said.

A spokesman for Citizens' Advice Scotland said the exploitation of East European workers was a growing phenomenon. "We've noticed a lot more Polish people," he said. "Since EU expansion there are a lot more people coming to us for advice.

"They are being sacked with a day's notice. There's no doubt [we] are seeing more migrant workers complaining about their treatment in the workplace."

The sisters, whose father worked as a university administrator in Warsaw, came to Scotland last year in search of work. Despite both graduating from college, they had no hope of a well-paid job and although their parents had misgivings, they made the move.

Joanna said: "We stayed on at school until we were 19. I got a diploma in hotel management and my sister is a university graduate. We thought we'd have a better chance in Scotland."

But an employment tribunal in Glasgow heard that Clive Jeffries, the hotel boss, ridiculed them in front of customers drinking in the bar, by referring to them as his "Polish slaves" and his "Polish bitches". On one occasion, he is said to have asked Lydia: "What is slut in Polish?"

Walter Muir, the tribunal chairman, said that "to a very great degree" the women had been exploited. "Either wittingly or unwittingly, he hit the nail on the head when he referred to them as his slaves," Mr Muir said. "This very much accorded with the factual position."

The women arrived in Scotland last year after Lydia, 26, responded to an internet advert and phoned Mr Jeffries, who, at the time, was part-owner of the hotel with his wife, Jackie.

He explained it was a small establishment and that staff would have to be flexible. But the women complained they had to work over and above the set 48 hours without pay and that their wages, when they eventually received them, were short.

Matters came to a head last June when Lydia, who had undergone an operation, was said to be so exhausted she collapsed.

Mr and Mrs Jeffries were having a birthday party with up to 90 guests and the tribunal heard the Polish women were "literally on their knees" after having been on duty from 9am on Saturday morning until the early hours of Sunday. They finally got to bed at 5am and had to get up four hours later to resume their cleaning duties.

At 5pm that afternoon, Mr Jeffries asked Lydia's fiancé why they had not reported for duty, and they were warned that if they did not get back to work by 8pm, they were to leave the premises. The three said they had been working long hours and Joanna told him she would not leave without being paid what they were due.

He told them to "f*** off now" and they collected their belongings and left. A few days later, they received the wages owed based on a 48-hour week.

The tribunal ruled the women had been unfairly sacked and discriminated against on racial grounds because they were of Polish origin. Joanna was awarded £8,499, Lydia £6,487 and Sylvia, who is now back in Poland, £1,465 compensation.

No-one from the hotel - now under new management - was at the tribunal.

Joanna, who now lives in Rothesay with her sister, and has found part-time work as a cleaner, said: "The reason we did this was because we realised we were being treated unfairly and want other migrant workers who come to Scotland to know that they can get help in situations like this."

According to Home Office figures, more than 20,000 Polish people registered to work in Scotland between May 2004 and March 2006. But it is estimated there may be up to 50,000 Poles living in Scotland, when students, family dependents, self-employed and previous immigrants are taken into account.

Case 'a warning' to employers exploiting foreign staff

ALEXANDER McBurney, a Glasgow-based lawyer, said that yesterday's ruling would act as a warning to other unscrupulous employers who tried to exploit foreign workers.

Mr McBurney, who acted for the two Polish sisters, said he had eight other clients from Eastern Europe who have also suffered workplace discrimination.

He said stories of poor wages, long hours and a lack of employment contracts were familiar, but warned that bosses would be sued if they continued to break the law.

He added: "I'm getting a lot of calls now from Polish clients who are not getting their rights. They work excessive hours and they're not provided pay slips. This is a bit of a trend now."

Mr McBurney pointed out that migrant workers could win racial discrimination claims if they were treated badly due to their nationality, as in this case, which could end up costing a business dearly.

Legal experts now hope the landmark case will act as a deterrent to other bosses who routinely short-change their staff.

Mr McBurney is predicting a flood of similar cases as more migrants become aware of their employment rights. He said foreign workers are increasingly using the internet to get jobs in Scotland, which may not give all the information they need.

"These people don't know their rights and are very isolated. Very often, they are forced out and told to leave immediately.

"They are very exposed because they don't have the social contacts a Scottish person would have."

This is the latest in a series of cases where Polish workers have suffered discrimination.

Last February, three construction workers were awarded more than £1,400 for unpaid wages after they won their employment tribunal case in Inverness. The trio had worked 81 hours and had not been paid.

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