Is London creating Latvian sweatshops?

  • 2013-02-20
  • By Ilze Powell

BIG CITY LIFE: The glamour of a capital city is not always as it seems.

LONDON - Many wouldn’t hesitate to associate the words ‘exciting’ and ‘opportunities’ with large capital cities – like London – but does that really mean that these opportunities are exciting? And why is so much of the big talent that flees small town life, only to be discovered in a big city, often exploited, or even demotivated? Why would big cities want to sweatshop the upcoming creators and managers?

Soon after revisiting all of my friends, and somewhere in the middle of chumming up with some locals, I was introduced to the complexity of the moving-up-the-corporate-ladder process.
It seemed that there was always a big difference between what you thought you were qualified for, and what your employer considered you competent to do, the saddest being the lack of care for this problem. I heard many people’s gloomy tales about burning the candle at both ends and with no real success. I guess it’s no longer news that the so-called assistants and interns often end up doing most of the work, are underpaid and over-assured about their bright future, and years could pass before they would realize that that promotion would always include the word ‘soon’ in it.

Luckily I met several Latvians with inspiring and encouraging stories to tell, so there are some positive examples to focus on. One was an artist who used to slave her hours away in an interior design firm for over a year. Of course, in the industries like art and design, where talent cannot be measured in numbers or reports, it’s always been the hardest to prove yourself. She’d come to London to study and began looking for ways to boost her experience even between her classes.

The job situation was as follows - arrive first, do what you’re told to, do it well and don’t ask questions. Sounds typical but, in a creative profession where your own limits of expression are unknown to even yourself before you get a chance to explore them, it can be more degrading than forward-moving. Thankfully the team finally recognized her as an actual human being with a mind and ideas - with a right to decent working hours and at least a rent-paying hourly rate - and appointed her to a permanent position. But as this came after a long time of only ‘assisting’ the others, she still felt in need for some proper self-realizing time. How can you prove you can if you never could?

Then there was the fortunate New Year’s surprise from one of my best friends, who proved to be a positive example of a similar scenario. She moved to London to do her masters degree and in hope for some enlightenment regarding her future career three years ago. After a succession of coffee making shifts in small neighborhood cafes, that ironically included overheard conversations by other fellow Latvians enduring their London job hassles, she finally got the guts and applied for jobs in her line of work – cancer research. Weeks later, when nobody was knocking on her door and money didn’t rain down from the sky, she submitted her application papers for a couple of unpaid internships, which led to various questions about her age and why she’d still want to be an intern. She used to laugh about one of those answers when the interviewer had leaned in and nearly whispered, “These really are for young people who have no experience in anything, you know.”

As her graduate school proved to be a good cover story and she was the oldest and most experienced, she was quickly accepted and assigned to do, well, what the others didn’t want to. Everyone shared the same conditions with small cubicles and big paperwork loads, but the work ethics were of all sorts. A company of hundreds of local people and only a few foreigners turned out to be also a place where many didn’t bother with their responsibilities too much, and often lazed around. A month ago I received a happy note on my Facebook saying that her boss had finally noticed her hard work and excellence and offered her a full time job. Needless to say, she will not be returning to Latvia after this struggle is won over.

My college friend who moved to London years ago also gave a very interesting example. She had found a recruitment agency back in Riga that had sent out her CV to all sorts of places within her industry of preference – online gaming – and informed her about the corporate job postings while she was still at home. Her interviews were well organized and plane tickets paid for, and things were going smoothly until the big city took its toll and she realized she wanted a bigger slice of the delicious pie. She’d started as a manager for the Baltic region, communicating with clients and colleagues in English and Russian, which gave her a unique angle and made her even somewhat irreplaceable.

Then came larger sums of money, bigger projects and broader markets and her ambitions grew with every next step. She relocated back to Latvia temporarily to finish her MBA and upgrade her professional profile, while continuing to hold her job, and soon after received a raise. Now, back in London, she has realized that this company, while big and exciting, would always see her as the girl from Latvia who came years ago to prove herself and has done everything in her power to do so. They might never acknowledge her as one of their own, and maybe that means it’s time to move on and search for a bigger fish to fry.

Funnily enough, all of these success stories prompted me to try out my own luck, to see if there really was no way to go around this so-called immigrant’s tale. My belief was: if I’m good and I can convince them that I’m good, maybe I wouldn’t need to struggle at all. I started sending out my overly promising CV along with a superbly written cover letter to see what would happen if a real good candidate came along. Sure enough, a couple of days had passed when I received several interesting phone calls inquiring about my abilities to do this and that (it’s very easy to ensure people when you don’t see them face to face), and I was offered two really challenging jobs. One was a bar manager with complete freedom to arrange all of their drink lists, organize liquor orders and be in charge of the sales. The second was a London-based multinational IT company offering me to prove myself as their new business developer. Knowing that my big words sadly held little truth in them, I hesitated to accept either opportunity but, who knows, maybe with the right dose of persistence, devotion and open mind I could have been great anyway.

It did make me consider a higher confidence scale the next time I apply for a real job in a city like London, and definitely left me dubious about all that dreary ‘truth’ told in the expat bars over thickly foamed Valmiermuiza beer mugs about what it takes for a Latvian to make it in the big English city.