Some of the fortunate who escaped the carnage of Kosovo are working on sites across London. But, being paid £2.50 an hour, many are being exploited. All names have been changed.
Jeton has come a long way to work in London. His journey started eight months ago, when he and his family fled their home in Kosovo to escape the bloody violence of the war now raging in former Yugoslavia.

He is just one of many Kosovars who have entered Britain illegally in the past year in a bid to escape the ravages of ethnic cleansing at the hands of Serbian police and army units. He has now found a kind of sanctuary on London's building sites, but it comes at a price. He and fellow Kosovar workers are paid derisory wages by contractors exploiting their illegal employment status – even in National Construction Week, when the industry is trying to clean up its image.

Jeton and his colleagues have been working as labourers on high-profile construction projects in London, but are paid less than half the £50-60 day-rate that their British counterparts get. Their stories are strongly denied by all the contractors involved.

Jeton's escape from the blood-soaked valleys of Kosovo brought him to the seedy London offices of one subcontractor. Gathered outside the office at 6.30am, Jeton and 30 or so other Kosovars wait to be dispatched to sites around the capital. Sometimes, when no work is available, they are disappointed but are always told to return the next day.

Similar scenes occur throughout London every day. On a street corner off Cricklewood Broadway in north London, large groups of Kosovars and other East Europeans gather in the early hours of each morning, hoping to be picked up for casual work on sites.

Jeton's new life began when he fled Kosovo in September after the Serbian government ethnically cleansed his hometown of Prizren.

He and his family escaped to Skopje, Macedonia, where he paid DM3000 (£1200) to be smuggled into Greece in the back of a container lorry. After a four-day journey inside the container, Jeton and two companions reached Belgium, where they were switched to another container in which they crossed the Channel. They were eventually dropped outside London and caught a bus to Victoria Coach Station.

Jeton quickly made contact with other Kosovars, and they put him in contact with their subcontractor employer. Jeton is glad of the chance to work, but wishes he could earn more money to send home to his family in Albania. He worries about his family. Tears well up in his eyes when he talks about them, and when he speaks of his home in Prizren. "It is gone," he says with his head bowed. "It was fire and is ashes." Jeton's family are safe with relatives in Albania, but he is anxious to send them money so that they will not be a burden.

Selami, a Kosovar who has been given temporary asylum, recently earned £120 for working a 50-hour week on a site in London's Square Mile. His English is almost non-existent. All he remembers about the site he worked on was that it had a large canteen that he never used. The canteen, he explains, was for "rich workers, English [and] Irish [who] earn good money".

He, too, paid a lorry driver to enter the UK, but he is reluctant to talk about it. He is trying to gain permanent residence in Britain and is frightened of any publicity.

"I work, but I spend my money to buy these," he complains in broken English, pointing to a pair of work boots. His employer picks him up at the office in the morning and takes him back at night. Selami says he is always nervous travelling in the van that transports him. He is frightened that it will be stopped by the police, whom he fears will deport him for working.

Selami was never asked for a National Insurance number. Despite this, he was told that PAYE income tax had been deducted from his wages. "That was why they say my money was £120," he explains.

The local authority has provided Selami with a place to live and supplied him with what he describes as "food paper" (vouchers), which he can use at his local Tesco. He does not receive any additional money to live on. He says that if the local authority found out he was working in construction, he would lose his entitlement to food vouchers.

Like Jeton, Selami wants to work so he can send money back to his family in Macedonia. "They have nothing there and I must work to help them," he says.

Kosovars are not the only East European immigrants working in the black market. Nicolai, an illegal Romanian immigrant, arrived in this country eight months ago on a tourist visa. He also found work with a subcontractor on a West End site. Paid by cheque, Nicolai's take-home pay for working six 12-hour shifts is £180, or £2.50 an hour.

A spokesman for the major contractor in charge of the site said all workers were employed in line with the Working Rule Agreement and that it had checked all their National Insurance numbers.

A subcontractor said the three men's stories were "rubbish". "I can assure you that nobody working for us is earning less than the [£3.60 an hour] minimum wage," he said.

"I was up until 3.30 last night filling wage packets and placing cheques in envelopes. All the amounts were over the minimum wage level. It's the cheque-changing bureaus that must be shafting them." The "cheque-changing bureaus" referred to are an important part of the story. The vast majority of illegal workers are paid by cheque, which they can cash in various London pubs.

In fact, the cheque-cashing business is so popular that one landlord has built a special kiosk in the corner of the pub where workers can cash their cheques without bothering his other customers. Most Thursday and Friday evenings, the pub is packed with Kosovars and other East Europeans queuing up to turn paper into cash.

Other pubs have also been quick to cash in on the fact that illegal workers do not have bank accounts, charging an average of £5 a time for cashing wage cheques. Many East Europeans are grateful for this service, as it allows them to be untraceable.

They are also willing to go through a middleman, however shadowy, to secure work. Workers on two London sites gained labouring shifts with a London contractor in this way. Brian Craze, construction officer with the Transport and General Workers Union, complained to the contractor which, he said, was using the men on site.

The contractor admitted using labour supplied by the middleman, but insisted it was not aware that it had been supplied with illegal workers. A spokesperson said: "If there are people there, we don't know about it. We check the NI numbers of workers on site. I'd be surprised if anyone got through our net."

But streetwise subcontractors often have a pool of bona fide National Insurance numbers with matching names. Quite often, the same numbers and names are used on several sites at once. But as few major contractors bother to cross check National Insurance numbers, workers with bogus credentials have little chance of getting caught.

Jeton is studying English at night school. With improved English, he hopes to get a better job. He has a friend who makes £25 a day washing up, £5-7 more than Jeton. Whatever the future holds, Jeton does not want to remain in construction. "It not a good job," he explains. "It keep you poor."

The industry’s view

Building asked a cross-section of the industry for its views on the use of East European labour with dubious work credentials and no command of English Mace: To ensure all trade contractors have complied with employment regulations, we will, in addition to our current checks and procedures, require production of the actual work permit in advance of a security pass being issued. This doesn’t apply to EU citizens Kvaerner: Subcontractors that supply non-English-speaking labour must supply us with bilingual foremen Peter Rogers of developer Stanhope: It worries me. Morally, I believe the industry should be training these people and paying them decent wages John Doyle Construction: It’s worrying to exclude people, and there’s a real shortage of labour. So, they [East Europeans] have to learn English, or we need to train more people Leading London labour agency Duffy Contract Services: We insist that all East European workers have proper documentation before they start work

Language barrier leads to site accidents

The economic benefits of having a workforce operating on early 1980s wage levels are clear. Consequently, Bob Blackman, construction secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, believes major contractors encourage site managers to turn a blind eye to the widespread use of East European workers. But the increase has resulted in serious accidents on site. The problem surfaced with almost tragic results on a Bovis site in west London, when a cherry-picker reversed over a Polish worker. Site sources said the worker, employed by subcontractor Duffy Contract Services, did not speak English and did not understand the reversing signal on the vehicle. Bovis admitted that the worker did not speak English, but insisted he had undergone a site-safety induction with an interpreter who spoke “reasonable English”. After spending five weeks in hospital, the worker, whom sources say was an illegal immigrant, disappeared before the Health and Safety Executive could interview him. A spokesman for Duffy Contract Services told Building that it was still in contact with the injured worker, but the HSE says it has no knowledge of his whereabouts. Following the accident, Bovis ordered Duffy to remove 18 of its operatives from the site because it was not satisfied with their National Insurance credentials or command of English. Blackman says the episode highlights both the dangers of East European workers on sites and the ease with which illegal workers can get work in construction. He is also dismissive of contractors’ checks on workers: “I’ve been told by someone who organises safety induction for the industry that a contractor threatened not to pay him when he refused to issue a safety certificate to a group of workers who didn’t speak English. “Contractors tell East Europeans not to speak during a safety induction. They’re told to say nothing and take all the handouts they are given. The fact that none of them can read is irrelevant to subbies and majors alike. It’s time the majors stopped avoiding the issue and put their house in order.”