Additional reporting by Zak Garner-Purkis
An investigation by ITV News and the Observer has uncovered evidence of serious flaws in the way a network of hotels and accommodation blocks are run to house asylum seekers.
Whistle-blowers have told us how some staff running them are paid below the minimum wage, rostered to work 6 days a week for 12 hours a day, far in excess of the 48-hour weekly limit, and work in breach of their student visas.
Some 9,500 asylum seekers are accommodated in re-purposed hotels and apartment blocks, sometimes waiting years for their claims to be processed.
The Home Office pays private companies like Clearsprings Ready Homes to help manage these. Clearsprings in turn subcontracts another firm, Stay Belvedere Hotels Ltd to help run some of them.
But some Stay Belvedere employees have shown us evidence revealing that some staff, many of whom are foreign nationals and South Asian international students, are paid as little as £5.60 an hour, well below the minimum wage of £8.70.
We have seen timesheets and invoices which appear to show the practice is widespread across hotels run by Stay Belvedere Hotels Ltd. One whistle-blower told ITV News and the Observer they “felt exploited” but were resigned to the low pay and long hours, because there were very few other jobs around.
“It's exhausting, illegal, unfair, but at this point, I think anyone would be willing to do anything because if you decide to question this and go out looking for jobs, there's pretty much nothing out there. “Everyone feels that they are being taken advantage of because of the situation they are in.”
When they challenged the low pay, they say they were told by management: "You're self-employed, this is how it works. If you're not happy, there's the door.” But the hotel staff shouldn’t be classed as self-employed, because they work wholly at the hotels, full time. It’s understood some of the workers we spoke to were told to submit invoices each month, but the company did not pay any National Insurance contributions on their behalf or any PAYE tax.
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Allegations we heard include that international students working at asylum seeker hotels were regularly breaking the terms of their visas by working long hours for below minimum wage. One international student we spoke to had worked more than 70 hours a week for Stay Belvedere Hotels, more than three times over the 20-hour limit of their visa. “We were told that we would have to work for 6 days a week and it would be 12-hour shifts”, he said.
ITV News and the Observer have seen evidence he was paid just £5.80 an hour. We have been told by some asylum seekers and Stay Belvedere staff themselves that they feel staff are ill-equipped to deal with the complex needs of residents. Many of those being housed temporarily at the hotels are considered mentally vulnerable, with many having fled torture and persecution abroad.
One asylum seeker living in Stay Belvedere accommodation has told us how a culture of intimidation and verbal abuse by staff has left her feeling "insecure and unsafe" in the cramped room she shares with her child.
“I'm a single mother living with a group of males… They call me a prostitute and see me as available.” She says the hotel “feels like a prison, literally because in a prison, you don't eat healthy food. You are being harassed. Your privacy is being invaded. You have zero rights in the prison. And it's the same in this hotel.”
Stay Belvedere Hotels denies the incident involved a member of their staff.
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The allegations have prompted the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Yvette Cooper to call on the Home Office to urgently look into the company.
She said: “This is really serious. The Home Office has contracted with this company to provide an important service. If instead, this company is breaking potentially breaking employment rules, potentially breaking tax rules, or staff visa rules and not providing the right kind of service that is exploitative. And the Home Office needs to be urgently looking into this.”
Separately, ITV News and The Observer can reveal that 9 asylum seekers died in all hotels across the UK between 1st January and 9th December 2020. It’s not clear what the cause of the deaths were, but several asylum seekers we have spoken to have told us how attempted suicides are commonplace among the more than 60,000 asylum seekers waiting often more than 6 months for their cases to be heard.
It is not known whether any of these deaths occurred in hotels operated by Clearsprings or Stay Belvedere Hotels Ltd. In a statement, Stay Belvedere told us it was investigating the allegations: “Stay Belvedere Hotels Ltd is committed to ensuring all of its staff are paid fairly for their work, and at least in accordance with the national minimum wage requirements. “We have commenced an immediate review of all staff pay, and in so far as we identify any issues or errors in relation to such, they will be swiftly rectified. “SBHL has procedures in place to ensure that appropriate checks are carried out in relation to all prospective staff, in order to seek to prevent illegal working. “Whilst many staff work hard, involving some longer shifts, we are committed to ensuring staff wellbeing is high and to ensuring that any work is completed in accordance with legal requirements.”
Clearsprings told us they are also launching an investigation: “We take allegations of this nature seriously and we will be investigating them fully. We are not aware of any member of staff employed by Clearsprings or our sub-contractors currently paid below the minimum wage. “We are investigating the issues raised in regards to staff working hours and student permits and will put in place any actions required to address any issues raised as part of that investigation.” Both Stay Belvedere Hotels and Clearsprings companies say they provide a high quality of service to asylum seekers, and that staff are well trained.
But our investigation has put both companies under the spotlight of the Home Office. A spokesman said: “The Home Office has raised these serious allegations with our accommodation provider and will investigate them fully.”