In pro-Brexit Kent, farmers count on EU workforce

 19 Mar 2017 - 19:02

In pro-Brexit Kent, farmers count on EU workforce
Workers plant salad crops in a field in Wrotham, south east England on March 13, 2017. Resentment about the scale of immigration helped determine the result of the Brexit vote in Kent, known as the "Garden of England", where many of the seasonal workers in the sprawling orchards and fields come from eastern Europe. AFP / Ben Stansall

By Jacques Klopp / AFP

Maidstone, United Kingdom: The accusation that immigration drives down wages is one that irritates Gabriela Szomoru, a 31-year-old Romanian who has worked her way up to an office job at a farm in southeast England.

Szomoru came to Britain 10 years ago and started out picking strawberries before being promoted to her current job at a 600-hectare salad farm just outside Maidstone, the main town in the county of Kent.

"Driving wages down? No, we don't offer less than the minimum wage. If the government decides this is the pay rate, we just follow," Szomoru said.

"It's a very hard job. You start at five o'clock in the morning, up to 10 hours every day, six days a week."

Szomoru is married to a tractor driver from Hungary.

The two see their future in Britain and are planning to buy a house in the area, even as the government prepares to implement last year's Brexit vote.

Resentment about the scale of immigration helped determine the result in Kent, known as the "Garden of England", where many of the seasonal workers in the sprawling orchards and fields come from eastern Europe.

At the farm where Szomoru works, all 150 seasonal workers and 15 of the 30 permanent employees are non-British -- for a total proportion of 92 percent.

 'Drives wages down'

In Kent, about 59 percent voted for Britain to leave the European Union -- higher than the national figure of 52 percent.

The anger of local residents, who have been particularly concerned about arrivals of undocumented immigrants who have crossed the Channel from France, is still palpable nine months after the referendum.

"I don't like people jumping on lorries and coming over here working illegally. That needs to be sorted out. It drives wages down," said Valerie Fuller, 80, a retired teacher.

In a country whose 4.7 percent unemployment rate is the envy of its European neighbours, the argument that immigration weighs on wages was widely used by pro-Brexit campaigners.

The theory, however, often does not stand up to scrutiny.

"The short answer is no. It doesn't have any effect on wages at all," said Jonathan Wadsworth, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics.

He said it could have a "very, very small" effect on low-skilled jobs, amounting to a decline of just one percentage point or less.

"The big falls in wages after 2008 are due to the global financial crisis and a weak economic recovery, not to immigration," Wadsworth said.

Britons 'too lazy'

Local farmers in Kent say they rely heavily on foreign workers because they cannot find enough Britons willing to do the required jobs.

But Eddie Powell, a business owner in Kent and a local representative for the anti-establishment UK Independence Party (UKIP), said British people were "fed up being branded as lazy".

"It's unfair to those people who sometimes put in 60 or 70 job applications and don't even hear back from the employer," he said.

"Some jobs are only advertised in the countries where the (migrant) workers are coming from," he said.

James Bish, an 18-year-old Briton working at the Costa coffee chain, disagreed, saying that his compatriots were "too lazy".

"Migrants are coming to do the jobs the British people don't want to do," he said.

"It is quite easy to get a job as long as you're determined enough and you're looking in the right places," he said. "The immigrants I do know are some of the hardest working people I know."

Nick Ottewell, the director of the farm where Szomoru works, said he had received insults for making comments about the need for immigrants in the local press.

Ottewell said sectors like farming, healthcare and construction "wouldn't function" without them.

At his farm, seasonal workers get the minimum wage of £7.50 an hour (8.60 euros, $9.15) and can live in caravans with showers and kitchenettes that rent for £42 a week, including water and electricity.

Ottewell, whose farm produces 9,000 tonnes of salad a year, said he once took part in a government scheme to hire 10 people from the local unemployment office.

"I ended up with one person turning up on the farm, and he ended up causing me problems," he said.