Chinese Whispers: 

The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour

You'll remember the harassed waitress from your local Chinese restaurant. You've noticed those builders across the street working funny hours and without helmets. You've eaten the lettuce they picked, or bought the microwave they assembled. The newspaper headlines 'cockle-pickers', 'Morecambe Bay', 'Chinese illegals found dead in lorry' will ring a bell. 

But did you know that there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented Chinese migrants living and working in Britain? They keep their heads down and work themselves to the bone. They contribute their labour and give the prime of their life to this country. Yet they enjoy no rights nor protection - and as a result, some lost their precious lives. This book is dedicated to their struggle - and the struggle of all status-less workers worldwide.

Published by Penguin, 2008

Chinese Whispers was shortlisted for the Orwell Book Prize 2009. Read about the prize and the shortlist


"What really fascinates is what we can't see, what happens below the surface, who cleans up after us, and who dare not step up and be counted due to fear of either law makers or law breakers"                                                                                                     - Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin's review of Chinese Whispers

He named Chinese Whispers as one of his six top books 

"A book that really needed to be written. Utterly gripping, deeply moving"
                        - Marina Lewycka, author of Two Caravans

Paul Mason named Chinese Whispers as one of his Top Ten books on China


The Independent on Sunday

Reviewed by Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski

1 June 2008

Sweatshops and dangerous factories only flourish in countries such as China, don't they? Places without the kind of labour legislation we have in this country. Hsiao-Hung Pai's extraordinary, gut-wrenching exposé of the way that hundreds of thousands of people are forced to work in Britain today answers this question emphatically: no.

Britain is one of the many developed countries that has so far failed to sign up to the 1990 UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which states that human rights and certain minimum standards of welfare should be extended to all migrant workers, regardless of their legal status. In Britain, "illegals", as the tabloids call them, have no rights. Cockle pickers drown, people die from exhaustion after working 24-hour shifts on production lines, and very little happens. Families receive no compensation and the chains of organisations supporting the trade in cheap labour continue to flourish. There's political capital to be made prosecuting gangs bringing illegal immigrants into Britain, but very little to be had protecting the rights of those "illegals" once they are here.

Hsiao-Hung Pai explains why so many Chinese workers risk their lives to work in Britain, having been driven out of China by economic reforms implemented since it joined the World Trade Organisation (nearly five million workers in state-owned factories were made redundant between 2001-2006 in the north-eastern provinces alone); and demonstrates the ways British consumers benefit from their labour.
How can this go on in a country obsessed with surveillance? In provincial towns, where you can be prosecuted for cutting down a tree or painting your front door the wrong colour? There are obviously some things that people just don't want to see. 

The Independent Review

Reviewed by Boyd Tonkin Friday, 6 June 2008

From a brothel in Cheam to a lettuce farm in Sussex and Soho kitchens, this brave and gripping book documents the harsh lives of the army of undocumented Chinese workers in the UK. Undercover reportage at its best, and bravest, Chinese Whispers lifts the lid - with scrupulous research - on a secret hell of fear and toil. Everywhere she goes, Hsiao-Hung Pai finds that illegality itself multiplies the misery. Gangs attack "massage" joints with impunity, waiters earn far below the minimum wage, invisible labourers fall sick in dodgy factories. And Britain still spurns the UN convention that aims to protect all migrant workers.

The Observer Review

Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour

From Morecambe Bay to Thetford, from Kings Lynn to Manchester, from Hartlepool to Birmingham, there exists an invisible army of workers. In Chinese Whispers, Hsiao-Hung Pai exposes the horrifying exploitation of their lives: the treacherous journeys upon which they embark to be smuggled out of China and the deplorable conditions they face once they reach the UK.

Undocumented and illegal, they willingly place their lives in the hands of ruthless gangmasters in an attempt to provide for their families back home. They are the nameless labourers in restaurants and factories, on the streets and even in the sea, who work excruciatingly long hours for scandalously poor pay. They prepare the salads we buy in McDonald's, make the Samsung computers we work at, and cook the meals we eat in Chinese restaurants. In this exhaustive and troubling survey, Pai peels away their masks to reveal not only names but charming personalities and distressing histories.

There is Mr Zhang, who worked 12-hour shifts placing screws into computers with only a half-hour break; who was refused permission for an extra rest when he complained of an unbearable headache; who died of a haemorrhage later the same night. Then there is his wife, whose repeated pleas for information about her husband's death and compensation went unheard. There are even those so desperate for work that they picked cockles in Morecambe Bay just months after more than 20 of their compatriots lost their lives.

Perhaps most shocking, though, are Pai's revelations about the violent ring that controls the sale of fake DVDs. One worker was beaten, blindfolded, dragged out of his flat and held for weeks by a gang who eventually demanded £12,000 or 'your family will be in hell'. His crime? To quit his job as a DVD seller, one of the many who are commonly seen on the streets plying their trade. This is a remarkable piece of investigative journalism in which Pai does not just meet the workers, she becomes one. Her journey reveals a sinister underworld that will sicken the reader. Through it all, she captures the human stories in a tender and ultimately heartbreaking way. 

IRR (Institute of Race Relations) Review, also published in Race & Class journal

Chinese Whispers: A call to arms
Reviewed by Jenny Bourne
11 June 2008

This book based on undercover journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai's experiences among Chinese illegal labourers in this country is vital reading for all who campaign about workers' rights, racial and sexual exploitation, globalisation, trafficking and forced migration.

The tale (or tail, in this case) begins in globalisation and the massive impact of opening China to market capitalism on certain areas, especially Fujian (in the south-east), Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin (in the north-east) and those who have migrated to or been thrown out of state industries in Shanghai. Just to subsist, to ensure parents can eat and children get education, family members have to get to the West to work. However much they have to pay to trafficker snakeheads (with heads in the UK and tails in rural China) they believe it will be worth their while. But, according to this brilliant book, Chinese Whispers: the true story behind Britain's hidden army of labour, based on investigative journalism by a committed Chinese post-graduate, it never is. The traffickers always extort more and more, threatening family members back home, the gangmasters in the UK always take more and more for your keep, to register you for work, for sweeteners to agencies, as penalty for illness, lateness and not meeting targets. And now, even those dirty, backbreaking, jobs at the bottom of the illegals' pile, are harder and harder to come by as cheap, 'whiter' labour becomes available from eastern Europe.

The horror of this book, and the Broomfield docu-drama film Ghosts, also based on Hsiao-Hung Pai's research, is the banality of what is happening - in our midst yet without us seeing. The fact that Chinese workers are living four mattresses to a room, and twenty-to-a-house in semis just like our family dwelling on the 1930s estates we all know; that the spring onions, packs of leeks, cuts of pork that we pick up any day at the local supermarket have been processed by humans-turned-automatons, feet, hands, minds numbed by cold and weariness; that in the 'massage parlours' we pass every day on the main roads women are kept in total confinement, not allowed to even talk to one another, forced to satisfy clients on shifts that last over fourteen hours and are rotated between parlours like any other inanimate piece of entertainment to provide variety.

Ghost is the Chinese term for white people, but ghosts are exactly what the illegal Chinese super-exploited workers are in our economy - visible only for as long as the headlines record a tragedy, as at Dover in 2000 when fifty-eight were found suffocated in a lorry after the driver carrying them turned off the refrigeration unit on one of the hottest days of the year, as in 2004 in Morecambe Bay when twenty-three Chinese cocklers, who had already been set upon by racist locals, drowned because they knew nothing about the tides. Hsiao-Hung Pai went under cover into the ghost world and writes both of her direct experiences and those of the people she lived with, worked among, befriended and tried to help.

Taiwan-born Hsiao-Hung Pai, with an MA in cultural theory, might have faced some of the same British racism as her Chinese countrymen, but she was certainly from a different class and destined for a different fate in the West. But as she read the headline about the fifty-four suffocating in Dover, she writes, 'I felt my blood heating up with rage ... They'd all their life savings and borrowed heavily for the journey, in the desperate hope of working in Britain to make money to support their families. Like cargo, their bodies were found among crates of tomatoes'. From that day, she turned her energies towards uncovering the stories of Chinese immigrants. After the cockle-pickers death, Pai resolved 'to set out on a journey into the hidden world of exploitation to discover what could allow such tragedies to happen.'

The book starts with the simple story of former farmer Zhang Guo-Hua, walking through New Malden, hoping for a job at Samsung. Within months he was literally worked to death. He died of a subarachnoid haemorrhage after he worked shift after shift with acute headaches without being allowed to take breaks. His widow received no compensation because he was an 'illegal'. The Chinese workers voiced their disquiet, the man's relatives were all sacked, the electronics firm relocated to Slovakia. Chinese Whispers is stamped through and through with the brutality and dehumanisation of capitalism in extremis. There is no recourse for workers cheated out of their wages, no relaxation for those who fear police and immigration every second of the day, no way up, no way out, no way back.

In each chapter we either read of Hsiao-Hung Pai's own experiences, or those of the people she meets along the way - on factory lines, in brothels, fields and restaurants. The impact of the book comes from the way that she imaginatively manages to tell each story from the inside - telling us about the background, reconstructing the feelings, perceptions, longings, desperation of each individual we encounter. (One of the most moving aspect, and not something she gratuitously inserts, is the sudden, human spirit that breaks through: the very poor share what food they have, collect money for the bereaved, take joy in another having got a job, celebrate finding a cheap camera.) And at the end of each 'episode' she writes of her attempts to call those who profit from Chinese illegal labour to account - be it farms, firms, sub-contractors, super markets - and to alert those like coroners and the health and safety executive of their responsibilities.

She must be an extremely brave person to have undertaken this dangerous and essentially lonesome undercover research. And she has written an unapologetically crusading book. It is as important as the Cathy Come Home film forty years back. Ethical consumers, trades unionists and women's groups all should read this and spawn the equivalent campaigns to Shelter and Child Poverty Action Group that are needed today against the ravages of globalisation, the impact of world trade agreements, the rightlessness of seasonal workers and illegal migrants, the vulnerability of the trafficked and the consumer society that divorces 'our objects of desire' from the degradation of their creation. This is not just a deeply moving book, it is a call to arms.

[1] Cathy Come Home was a TV play by Jeremy Sandford directed by Ken Loach and broadcast in November 1966 which broached taboo subjects such as homelessness, a mother's right not to have her children taken into care, unemployment and working-class poverty. It was watched by 12 million people and doubtless mobilised the public to support the Child Poverty Action Group formed in 1965 and the pressure group Shelter, formed in 1966. 

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung/ Chinese workers picking cockles near Morecambe, chapter four

Photo: by co-worker / Hsiao-Hung working undercover at Grampian's factory, Suffolk, chapter two

Photo: by Hsiao-Hung / Chinese workers at beancurd factory, north London, chapter seven

Photo: by Hsiao-Hung/ Co-worker picking leeks, Northampton, during undercover, chapter five

Photo: by Hsiao-Hung / Picking seaweed for dinner, Selsey Bill, chapter three

A part of chapter six and seven of the book was serialised in Sunday Times and The Guardian. The book was also discussed at Hay Festival, May 2008.