Tuesday, 24 November 2015


I was a migrant worker once-well, actually twice. First to Helsinki, briefly to Frankfurt am Main and then back to Finland-finally to Kuwait (before Saddam's invasion).  What persuaded me to go abroad was what motivates many guest workers, finding a job. I completed my training in 1980 and looked enthusiastically for my first teaching post. Those were the days when schools still let you know if you had not been short-listed: "120 people applied for this post."

So I ended up in Helsinki teaching English as a Foreign Language-long hours for low pay at a private language school. Why did I choose Finland and not somewhere warm and sensible like Spain? I was at a YC international conference in the south of France, met some Finnish students and having learned just a little about their country chose to go there. Looking back, I can't quite understand why I made that choice!

Finland was interesting, though. A cold winter (-25) and the ability to walk on a frozen sea was better than the damp cold of England. And walking home at 4 in the morning under a pink sky was fascinating. I never got a grip on Finnish I'm afraid, a Finno-Ugric language with 15 case endings. The men were serious and, well, manly (they had 'Sisu'), the women were wonderful. These were the days when Finland was still in the Soviet orbit. The president was a man called Urho Kekkonen. All my students told me what a good man he was and how good relations with Russia were essential. The next day after he died they all remarked how Finland needed to be independent and Russia was useless. Public opinion in a tyranny can never be relied on, and it seems not in a small nation next to a large one either. When I arrived in Finland there were no English signs or adverts. When I left, MacDonalds had arrived.

A few years later I took a trip by double decker bus across Europe to India and was seriously broke when I got back. So it was off to Kuwait for a tax free salary, free appartment and health care, and a travel allowance from which we made money because transport was cheap. It didn't take me long to learn the pecking order. The Kuwaitis were supervisors only. There were more guest workers than native Kuwaitis, including over 300,000 Palestinians. We could eat out sampling a different nation's cuisine every night. We educated Brits were regarded as above most Muslims outside the Gulf, and certainly nowhere near the Indians, Pakistanis and Philpinos who did the manual jobs. On one occasion the management of the oil industry language school decided to save money by putting the support staff in a camp in the desert rather than in appartment blocks in town. We teachers protested to the British management. Whether this had any effect on the Kuwaiti bosses I don't know, but the move was cancelled.

The Iraq-Iran War was raging. Occasionally a 'stray' scud missile fired by Iran landed somewhere in Kuwait. The Saudis & Kuwaitis were aiding Saddam with billions of dollars and weapons convoys heading north via the Matla Ridge (hardly a ridge at all, a small gebel with the remains of British dragons teeth tank traps from the threatened Iraqi invasion in the 60's). One day a colleague drove up to Bubiyan Island (now a military base). He saw hundreds of dead sheep with no external wounds, so wisely turned around. North-west of where we lived on the coast the Iranians had captured the Faw Peninsular. At Easter I went to Egypt for a break. While I was away the Iraquis counter-attacked. My flatmate told me that even 35 miles south the earth shook with the sound of the Iraqi guns. They also used poison gas.

Having made enough in eight months to put down a deposit on my first flat and got a job, I returned home. For us Brits that's the point. Many of us have qualifications and the support of families back home. Nowadays we can choose to find fame and fortune in Dhubai and elsewhere. Later, after the invasion I learned that because Yassir Arafat backed Saddam, the Kuwaitis expelled the Palestinians-all of them. And now people come to our country to improve their lives, including a lot of Poles and Balts who are basically doing the jobs our own people won't do (while we are paying them benefits of course). I have been reading 'Factory Girls' about migrant workers from the Chinese countryside working in the factories of the south-long hours often for the equivalent of £50 a month. But there are thousands of Chinese illegals in this country working in this country, in debt to the human traffickers and the gang-masters. Forty such strivers for a better life suffocated in the back of a smuggler's lorry. Cockle pickers trapped by the rising tide in the night phoned home, "Mother, goodbye, I am going to die." Meanwhile, students who buy £1,000 shirts, probably made in China, demonstrate for their entitlements.

* [a little known fact: thousands of Chinese labourers built fortifications in France in WW1 and some of them are buried there].

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