Paradise for 5.57 an hour

Daily Express - 3rd November, 2007

THE gangmasters call their company Paradise Solutions Ltd but as migrants shuffle in on payday it's hard to see why. In the gathering gloom of a damp November afternoon the grey, breezeblock office on an anonymous business park seems as far from paradise as God could make it.

A neighbouring unit, clearly unimpressed by Eastern Europeans assembling in the car park, has taken up the generally unwelcoming theme.

"This is not a rubbish bin, " barks a notice by the door. "It's a post box." And yet it's clear that the Poles and Lithuanians waiting to claim white envelopes containing perhaps GBP130 for a week's worth of cauliflower cutting are very happy with their lot.

They are part of the 4,000-odd migrant population now established in West Cornwall where flower farmers, veg growers, slaughterhouses, meatpackers and fast-food outlets have an unquenchable thirst for labour.

Specifically, cheap labour.

The farm rates are either piecework - typically GBP5 for picking 80 bunches of daffodils - or just above the minimum wage, maybe GBP5.57 per hour. In other words, jobs the Brits would normally take but now just sneer at.

But the presence of so many migrants in towns such as Hayle, Penzance, Camborne and Redruth is changing the character of this beautiful corner of rural England.

Many migrants are billeted in farm caravans, often cold, damp and dripping with condensation. Others rent houses, quietly sub-letting to fellow migrants at up to GBP50 per week for a shared room.

For the local councils, Kerrier and Penwith, health and education chiefs and police, this influx is a nightmare.

Officials admit they don't know how many migrants will arrive, how long they'll stay or where they will live.

Housing costs - already touching the stratosphere in this part of Cornwall because of holiday home demand - look set to rise further as rented accommodation is snapped up.

And rumbling away beneath all this are the inevitable tensions - street fights between migrants and locals, rumours of benefit fiddling, complaints of workers living on the streets. No wonder the Local Government Association last week called for a GBP250million fighting fund to help councils in the front-line of the migration boom.

One irony, according to Edita Jenkin, 27-year-old owner of Paradise Solutions, is that conditions have drastically improved for migrant workers precisely because housing and environmental health officials - together with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority - have put pressure on cowboy operators.

That news has filtered back home, encouraging sisters to join brothers, and wives and children to reunite with husbands and fathers. And all in the unlikely setting of Britain's most cherished seaside holiday region.

The GLA has 17 contractors registered in Cornwall, though rumour has it that at least one will soon be shut down for failing to pay migrants.

Another went under after a factory discovered the owners were skimming wages, agreeing to a GBP5.70 hourly rate but actually paying migrants only GBP5.35.

It's all a far cry from the days when illegal workers - Lithuanian-born Edita among them - were tipped out of minibuses across Cornwall and forced to work farmland for a pittance under constant threat of deportation.

Edita met her husband, Cornish farmer David Jenkin, 37, while he demonstrated the art of cutting caulis. They married four years ago and he later sold the family farm to work for her in Penzance.

Since June 2004 they have employed up to 200 migrants a year.

As of October 31 the total net wages paid stands at GBP5,313,288.44, a large slice of which is spent in the local economy. Both taxes and national insurance were charged on top.

David proudly points to one payroll number where the worker earned GBP8,612 between April and November.

That, he says, amounts to a small fortune in Eastern Europe.

"Seven years ago a migrant's life was grim, " says Mrs Jenkin. "You always thought you'd be caught. I'd go home to caravans where Tesco bags stuffed holes in the wall and you sang in the toilet because there was no door.

"When I set up this business I was determined my workers wouldn't go through that. Now when we place them on farms we make sure their living conditions are right. Some have laptop computers and mobile phones - they live a good lifestyle." SHE adds: "Neither do we abandon them. I try to sort out their return plane tickets, any problems with the authorities or employers.

Sometimes I'm the agony aunt and marriage guidance counsellor.

"I've had situations where this flower picker is with this girl and one morning he crosses the field to pick with that girl. Then I get the tears back at the office.

"There are also women leaving babies behind, fathers who return to find their children don't recognise them. It's hard for these people but the jobs and money are so much better than they could find back home.

And, of course, some families do come over to be reunited.

"I laugh when I hear that we are stealing British jobs. Show me a Brit who wants to cut caulis? So far we've employed one and he would get up drunk, get up late and work poorly.

We got rid of him quick." Not all migrants want to stay.

Lithuanians Sergej Maksimovic, 45, and his girlfriend Rima Vilimiene, 36, live in a six-berth farmyard caravan near Hayle - one of hundreds dotted around West Cornwall. Polish TV delivered via satellite is among the home comforts.

In broken English Rima says she sends money back to her family.

But she and Sergej are also saving to return home and set up a business.

Although she feels welcome she would never dream of settling permanently in Britain.

The farmer who hired them from Mrs Jenkin, 54-year-old Edward Pooley-Eustice, says his 300-acre farm producing spring greens, courgettes and strawberries would struggle without migrants.

"They are good workers, " he said.

"I try to treat them well and I see them as my friends. Any hostility is based on the idea that they're stealing English jobs - the same jobs English people don't want." Migrants such as 26-year-old Lithuanian Aruna Druteika say Cornwall is becoming a popular destination. "In London I was treated like a dog wherever I worked, " he says.

"In Cornwall it is much better.

Employers treat me well and when we are busy it is a good wage. When work is quiet it can be difficult." This, of course, is also a headache for the Cornish authorities. At present the migrant population in West Cornwall is thought to be below 4,000 (though in truth no one has a clue). By the new year it will rise dramatically as migrants seek work in the daffodil or potato fields.

According to Kerrier Council, numbers will then continue upwards, peaking in summer to about 25,000 across the county as seasonal jobs appear in hotels, catering, meatpacking and fastfood outlets.

Labour contractors say this phenomenon appears to baffle government policy-makers. Jimmy Davies, general manager of Hops Labour Solutions, an agency set up by the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, says Cornwall relies on a seasonal, mobile, migrant workforce. "It's not the same as in major cities, where you have permanent settlement, " he says.

"Yet the Home Office is busy closing down schemes such as Saws [the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme] in which migrants come and go as they have for years.

It doesn't make sense. People don't seem to understand what's happening and, rather more worryingly, neither does the Government." However in Penzance there is an undercurrent of tension on the streets. Mark Semmens, barman at the seafront Alexandra Inn and a former security officer at the town's YMCA, says street violence between Cornish and Eastern Europeans is starting to appear.

"It just doesn't get reported, " he says. "One of my friends was beaten up by three Poles about six weeks ago. He says it was unprovoked but my mate was drunk and he wasn't going to call the police. I've lived in Cornwall all my life and I'd say there's definitely some bad feeling.

It's not just the jobs, although young people in this town need summer jobs as much as anyone.

"It's the effect on housing. More and more migrants are renting rooms and that pushes up costs for everyone. What with the holiday homes as well it forces people to leave their home town." A SPECIAL report on migrant workers by Kerrier Council last year revealed increased drink-driving and prostitution linked to migrants.

"The evidence shows a major rise in road traffic accidents attributable to migrant workers, " it said.

"There are cases of drink-driving and a large percentage of offences of driving untaxed or unroadworthy vehicles are attributable to migrant workers having no knowledge of British laws and regulations. Police have recorded a significant rise in organised prostitution locally in the past two years, with women being brought in direct from Eastern European countries." Kerrier Council said it is trying to educate migrants on British laws and customs as well as their own rights. But environmental health manager Hope Bradbury says it is difficult because so many are scattered around remote farms.

"We don't know where they all are.

There's no doubt that a large migrant population is having an impact on council services." It will get worse, according to David Jenkin.

"The Government has blocked Bulgarians and Romanians from coming here, " he says. "But they will just work illegally and cause more problems. People have got to realise that Cornwall needs migrants and that they make a big contribution to our economy." For Eastern Europe, a payday in paradise is only a coach ride away.