Working in detention: Between the devil and the deep blue sea

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Wilson of the Freed Voices group was held in detention for six months, five months in Colnbrook and one in The Verne. He was then released back into the community, his detention serving no purpose. During his time in detention, he worked as a ‘buddy’, assisting other detainees and acting as a go-between with centre staff. Like all ‘jobs’ available for those detained, he was paid £1 an hour for his labour. Since his release, he has been denied the right to work. This financial insecurity makes processing the emotional trauma of his incarceration extremely challenging.

Earlier this week, news broke of a legal challenge against the Home Office’s ‘working in detention’ policy and the fact that, unlike prisoners in jail, those in detention are not covered by minimum wage legislation. The Home Office, pointing to the fact that work in detention is optional, rejected the points raised by the pre-action protocol lodged, but said it would review rates of pay.

Here, Wilson reflects on his own experiences of working in detention and offers his thoughts on the legal challenge at hand.

“Working in detention is modern-day slavery in action. There is no other words, really.

They say that the work in detention is ‘optional’. Really, you need this money for your basic essentials. Without it you would perish. If you don’t work, all you receive from the Home Office is 71p a day, £5 a week. A bottle of water in detention costs you 80p. This is what I spent most of my money on, to be honest. The taps were so bad in Colnbrook even the guards would advise you not to drink it. I really only took the job because I felt I had to. It is like being put between the devil and the deep blue sea. I did not feel like it was ‘optional’, as they say. I felt bossed into a corner.

At the beginning, every day I worked seven hours a day, for five days a week. This gave me £35. But after a while immigration told me to reduce my workload to 30 hours because, otherwise, they would have to pay out on National Insurance. They said, if you earn more than £120 a month then National Insurance kicks in. Before I was detained, I was working, I paid my National Insurance, so I know what they are saying.

My job in detention was to help with disputes between detainees or with the guards. Then they would call me to involve myself and use diplomacy. I was aware they were using me, yes. I was doing their job for them, really. I even remember guards asking us to take on more work because they were overstretched. In this way, the Home Office are taking advantage of the vulnerable environment people find themselves in in detention. Every now and again, you read about the UK’s commitment to tracking down those modern-day slavery practitioners. But this is happening all day, every day in detention.

The Home Office’s argument that work in detention is necessary to provide ‘recreational and intellectual relief’ does not add up to me. When they say this they are admitting that otherwise, they are destroying you mentally. And ‘recreational relief’? There is no such thing when you are rotting away. When you are working it is not as if the pain has gone or the waiting is over. You are still thinking: how did I get here? When will I be free? Will I ever be free?

I think it is good that this legal challenge has been brought. But mainly because I think it is important for the public to understand the way people in detention are treated. My only worry is that it should not distract from the bigger issues. The wage issue is useful for showing Home Office behaviour but better wages will not make the system ok. We need to shut these places down, not improve them.

You know, even when I left I had £30 in outstanding wages that they owed me. I thought about challenging them but in that moment, it felt like I had to choose between £30 or my freedom. I took the freedom but I could use that £30 now, oh yes…”