With a suitcase full of belongings and dreams, they have travelled to escape a discouraging future. Now their baggage has been loaded with discrimination, badly paid work, and precarious situations in London. But who are the OLAs?
Virginia Moreno Molina
The growing migration of Latin-Americans coming from Europe has given this group an important place in the report “Towards Visibility”.
We are talking about the so-called OLAs (Onward Latin Americans): Latinos who emigrated from their home to another European country, and then, for a number of reasons, (mostly economic), have arrived in London. Among this group, the predominant nationalities are Colombians (28%), Ecuadorians (22%) and Brazilians (15%).
This information, collected in the report mentioned above, which was published jointly by Queen Mary University, London, the LAWRS, and the Trust for London, was obtained by face-to-face interviews with 400 immigrants over the age of 16, plus another 28 in-depth interviews.
Their story always begins in their country of origin. Almost 4 out of 5 OLAs emigrated between 1996 and 2007, coinciding with the general economic crisis in Latin America, as well as the armed conflict in Colombia.
“The situation in Colombia influenced me in leaving, as I used to work in an area where armed groups and the government were fighting each other […]”.
Nicolas, a 40-year-old Colombian, is telling, in one of the interviews collected in the report, how he emigrated after his business collapsed due to the crisis in his country.
Because of that he decided to leave for Spain, from where he left again due once again to the economic crisis.
Economic reasons, a lack of professional opportunities, or the few possibilities of establishing a business in his native country: money was always the biggest problem.
Nonetheless, there are others who decided to make the journey after friends or family members encouraged them to do so, while others again wanted to offer a better future to those who were closest to them.
Language is a crucial factor when someone chooses a country in which to seek new opportunities. This is illustrated by the fact that 80% of the OLAs who moved to London had originally gone to Spain, followed by 9% who went first to Italy, and 8% to Portugal.
However, once the economic crisis struck Europe, the situation for many Latin-Americans became unsustainable for economic reasons (69%), and the idea of emigrating once again became inevitable.
But this group of Latin-Americans benefit from one big advantage: their European passport.
In fact, 72% of the OLAs entered their previous European country (chiefly Spain, but also Italy and Portugal), as tourists. After settling there, and going through the bureaucratic process, 82% left with a European nationality.
This explains how 9 out of 10 Latin-Americans belonging to this group, had the right to live and work permanently in the UK.
In terms of nationalities, the Colombians and Ecuadorians were those with the greatest number of European passport holders in the UK (94 and 93%, respectively), compared with 74% of Brazilians.
Coinciding with the worldwide economic recession, the great majority of OLAs (87%) have arrived in London since 2008.
And, once arrived in the capital the countdown begins, using up savings, patience and hopes. A stage where a place to live becomes the biggest worry, especially for those who arrive with children.
The concentration of Latin Americans who have already been settled in London for some years follows the same pattern as that of the OLAs today. Principally they have collected in the boroughs of Southwark (27%) and Lambeth (21%), followed by Haringey, Newham and Brent.
According to data gathered in the report, 78% are in privately rented accommodation, of whom one third are living in single rooms. This is because it is the cheapest and easiest option to obtain. Besides these, only 8% are living in public housing.
On the contrary, the number of property owners is very low (1.3%). This must be due to the high prices of property in London, which are increasing every year, and are the highest in Britain.
In the case of people living in one room, the Bolivians are the most numerous (54%), compared to 38% of Brazilians and Colombians. In addition, because of changes in the property market, the OLAs reported having moved house on average three times since their arrival. In fact, 21% have moved five times or more.
“All four of us used to live in one room, the two kids, my husband and I, and it was awful; my children were 3, and a year and a half, and one of them fell down the stairs. We shared the toilet and the kitchen with other families, there were vermin, small rats”.
Valeria, a 40-year-old Peruvian woman, used to manage three greengrocery shops in Spain, which went bankrupt during the economic recession. They lost everything, and it was because of this that they moved to London.
It has become common for parents and children to be living in a single room, and the figures show that 47% of OLAs are sharing their lodgings with other families or individuals.
According to the report, almost a third (31%) believe that their lodgings in London are overcrowded. Specifically, the Bolivians are the nationality most likely to experience this (57%), compared to only 8% of Brazilians.
Searching for work
The next challenge arises in looking for a job, although only 6% of this community are applying for unemployment benefit.
And, despite the fact that more than one third of them have university education, language becomes the key factor for being able to find professional work.
Nevertheless, 50% of this group do not speak English. This matters when searching for work, as well as making them vulnerable when they need to stand up for their rights, or experience some kind of abuse.
But when the search begins and savings are running out, and they need to find a job – any job – quickly, the importance of speaking the language slips into the background.
And in fact the report shows that the most common type of work is cleaning (domestic and contract work). In fact 49% of Latin-Americans in this group are working in this sector, although some also work in restaurants (6%).
By nationality, Bolivians are most likely to work in cleaning (71%), followed by Ecuadorians (65.5%) and Colombians (62.5%), while only 15% of Brazilians are working in this sector.
This implies a great contrast, bearing in mind that only 1% of OLAs used to work in this sector in their home countries, and only 10% in the European country in which they were living previously.
In addition, many have to do several jobs, due to the high cost of living in the capital. One third have more than one job, and around 10% have three or four.
Half of OLAs are receiving social support, but mostly in the form of benefits for children or housing.
Exploitation at work
“I signed a contract for 45 hours of work a week, but when they gave me my shift, I saw that it was 12 or 14 hours a day […]. When I got my pay, they hadn’t added the extra hours. […] When I went to complain, they told me that it’s like that in all the restaurants in London, that’s how the hospitality business works here”.
Luciana, 32, from Argentina, told in one of her interviews how she had been exploited working in a 5-star London hotel. This was just one case among many. In fact 45% have experienced some kind of exploitation at work, either of non-payment or verbal abuse.
And women continue to be the most vulnerable in comparison to men (48% and 41%, respectively).
At the level of nationalities, 74% of Bolivians suffer exploitation, compared to 31% of Brazilians, although more than half of OLAs said that exploitation at work was the most common kind of discrimination.
And although the level of discrimination in the capital is not so high (34.5% say they experienced it), this may be due to the fact that the majority of OLAs have come from Spain, where racism is more visible.
But this does not mean that there is no disguised racism.
Photos:Pixabay – (Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)