‘We’re invisible in our workplaces, and so we’re invisible in society,’ says Alberto, a cleaner from Colombia who has lived in London for the past five years.
Now organizations representing the Latin American community in the British capital are pressing for their official recognition as an ethnic minority, in order to gain more recognition, and to secure more rights.
As Carolina Gottardo, director of the London-based Latin American Women’s Rights Service stresses: ‘recognition has a political dimension. It helps us to gain access to benefits, and also helps fight discrimination.’
The problem of invisibility is stressed by Lucila Granada, Advocacy and Campaigns Coordinator, Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK: ‘Latin Americans are invisible and this means that the work of our community organisations is invisible too. It is extremely hard for BME organisations to find resources to support their work, but it is even harder when you provide services to invisible people, no matter how vital these are.’
According to recent statistics gathered by researchers from Queen Mary University in London, there are 113,000 Latin Americans living in London (out of an estimated total of some 186,000 in the United Kingdom as a whole) , although there are thought to be many thousands more who prefer not to give their details.
The largest group are Brazilians, followed by Colombians and Ecuadoreans. Numbers have been increasing in recent years, due mainly to the amnesties granted to Latin American immigrants in Portugal and Spain, who have then used their passports from these countries to come to the British capital.
According to Professor Cathy McIlwaine, who carried out the research, almost half of the Latin Americans in London say they came for strictly economic reasons. This is very different from earlier decades, when many came fleeing political turmoil in their home countries.
‘What is most striking,’ says Professor McIlwaine, ‘is that more than two thirds of them have post-secondary school education in their own countries, and yet more than half of them are working here in cleaning or in hospitality.’
This point is stressed by Mubin Haq, the director of Trust for London which financed the research into the Latin American community in London.
‘It’s a tragic waste of talent,’ he says, ‘and that is something this city of ours needs desperately.’
Mubin Haq also stresses that about 85% of the adult Latin American population in London is in employment: ‘in these days when immigration is being demonized for political purposes, it’s important to show that this community is not only hard-working, but actually does not claim many of the benefits to which it is entitled- only one-fifth of Latin Americans here do so’.
As well as being employed mostly in poorly-paid jobs with little status, London’s Latin Americans face discrimination. The most common complaint, according to the Queen Mary University study, is that not only are they paid the lowest wages, but they are often dismissed as an excuse not to pay them at all.
Mubin Haq expresses concern that many Latin Americans are not even being paid the legal minimum wage, and that this leaves them living in poverty, with over one third living in overcrowded accommodation.
What these Latin Americans find most disheartening, according to Professor McIlwaine, is that these abuses are often committed by other members of the Latin American community.
Carolina Gottardo, of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, argues that a clearer recognition of the community’s identity as en ethnic minority should help combat this kind of abuse.
She is calling for an amnesty for the estimated 20% of Latin American in London who have no papers. ‘Most of them are students who have stayed on after their visas have run out.’ By giving them legal status, she argues, they would be able to contribute even more to the British economy.
‘We need to construct and identity for Latin Americans here for political reasons, to be able to lobby, to press for equal rights and access to services,’ Gottardo concludes.