As Brexit looms, migrant workers go on picking Britain’s berries

Eastern Europeans still see money to be made on UK farms despite migration crackdown fears

Eastern European migrant workers on a farm owned by Hall Hunter Partnership © Tolga Akmen/FT

The Brexit-bound UK has not yet decided what it wants to do with migrant workers like Miroslav Ivanov. But Mr Ivanov, a barrel-chested 26-year-old from Bulgaria, has made up his mind about the UK.

“Next summer, I’m here!” he declared, standing in the narrow caravan he has squeezed into for the past two months with five other migrant workers, including his wife.

It has been their first summer picking raspberries on a farm on England’s south coast, near Chichester, and it was going as well as Mr Ivanov had hoped. “It’s good,” he said. “Very good. It’s nice. Everything is nice!”

The caravan is one of dozens on a farm owned by Hall Hunter Partnership, a leading UK berry grower, and Mr Ivanov and the other inhabitants of this temporary accommodation — mostly from Romania and Bulgaria — are now central to a roiling debate over a new, post-Brexit immigration policy for Britain.

A leaked draft of a government policy paper this month suggested that ministers want to crack down on unskilled workers coming to the UK from the EU, partly by limiting their stays to two years. Moreover, since Britain voted last year for Brexit some EU nationals are leaving, complaining either that they no longer feel welcome in the UK or about the decline in the value of sterling, which means the remittances they send home are worth less.

Bulgarian seasonal farm worker Miroslav Ivanov © Charlie Bibby/FT

But the migrant workers at HHP’s farm appear detached from the Brexit tumult. They pick berries or drive tractors 10 hours a day, six days a week — although some say the hours are longer because of mandatory meetings before and after their shifts. When they finish a bus brings them back to the seclusion of the caravan park, where there is little time — or energy — to do much more than eat, sleep and perhaps a bit of laundry.

“You sleep and work, sleep and work. That’s the job,” said Dimitar Savov, one of Mr Ivanov’s roommates, speaking before the draft Home Office paper about post-Brexit immigration policy was leaked. He had changed into shorts and flip-flops after his shift and was heating a supermarket pizza for dinner. His cheeks were red from a long day in the sun.

Phil Woodall, the mayor of nearby Bognor Regis, said most residents accepted — some grudgingly — the migrants were now a permanent feature of the area. Still, he lamented his inability to draw them closer to the town. “They’re in their own little community. How are you going to get them involved?” he asked.

For the HHP workers — many of whom barely speak English — their interest was less about integration than simple arithmetic. Back home, they note, they can earn £200-£300 per month; in the UK they earn £300-£400 per week.

“Here is good,” said Lulia-Corina Stana, who — in her eighth harvest — has been promoted from raspberry picker to team leader. “People make money.”

Migrant farm workers after a day spent picking fruit © Charlie Bibby/FT

Ms Stana was hopeful she would be permitted to return to Britain next year, in spite of Brexit. There was talk in the camp that she and other workers would need short-term contracts before leaving Romania for the UK — but no one was sure. Ms Stana has a particular stake in the final outcome of the Brexit talks between the UK and the EU: Her £450 per week salary — minus £44.80 for accommodation — helps to support her nine-year-old daughter in Romania. Such circumstances are common. Still, the atmosphere in the caravan park was convivial: satellite televisions were playing Bulgarian music videos. Workers gathered in groups of five or six at picnic tables, drinking beer or tea, smoking, chatting.

A young woman who, moments earlier, had been caked in dirt and wearing a baseball cap, emerged from her quarters in clean clothes and let down a dark mane of freshly washed hair. “Miss Bulgaria!” announced a young man, and everyone laughed.

There are personal touches to grace the surroundings: Ms Stana, for example, has created a small garden with potted flowers and toy windmills next to the caravan she lives in. A greenhouse has been repurposed to dry laundry.

Theft is non-existent, said the residents, but sometimes there are romances. Last summer, recalled Mr Savov, two Bulgarian girls dated two Romanian boys. “No problem!” he said.

But he could not recall anyone ever dating a local — perhaps because there was so little contact. “We have one day off. We go to the city maybe for two or three hours,” shrugged Mr Savov. “It’s like we’re invisible for them.”

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