Fruit pickers: 'The money we earn is not worth getting out of bed for'

They were promised a decent living, but the reality has been very different. Jerome Taylor meets the migrant labourers who feel betrayed by one of Britain's largest fruit suppliers

Two months ago, Ivan Borisov left his job as a tour operator in Bulgaria where he spent his summer guiding tourists around his country's Black Sea beach resorts and headed for the rolling Herefordshire countryside.

Despite having a steady job and knowing five languages, like thousands of seasonal labourers from eastern Europe who come to Britain every year, Mr Borisov believed the hours he would work on fruit farms this summer would make him enough money to justify spending six months away from his wife, Mira, and their newborn baby.

But earlier this week, the 27-year-old sat in a Tudor-style pub on the outskirts of the market town of Leominster, staring at the £7.62 that was supposed to last him until his next pay cheque, which was four days away.

"The money we earn is not even worth getting out of bed for," he said, picking at his soil-laden nails. "It is impossible to save so I can't send any money home to my wife. When I speak to her I tell her everything is OK because I don't want to upset her."

In Bulgaria, friends had assured Mr Borisov that a summer in Britain would make him thousands of pounds – far more than he could ever hope to make in his home town of Varna.

The work would be hard, he was told, but he could expect an eight-hour day, five days a week. Instead he is lucky if he brings in any more than £45 at the end of each week for 18 hours' work – the equivalent of £2.50 an hour.

"I feel like a slave," he says. "I want to go back to Bulgaria but where will I find the money to pay for the flight?"

The reason he has so little to spare is that the company he works for, S&A Produce, one of Britain's largest fruit growers and supplier to supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's, rarely gives him any more than four days' work a week and little more than four hours a day. It also deducts about half his weekly earnings to pay for obligatory charges including accommodation in a portable building with three others, internet access which rarely works and a one-off £35 payment for "welfare" and transport services.

Paid the minimum wage of £5.74 an hour, the work Mr Borisov does is exactly the sort of poorly paid, back-breaking labour that the British have long preferred to hand over to eastern European migrants, 21,000 of whom entered the UK this year under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which allows them to work on a specific farm for six months. Their willingness to work for so little allows Britons to buy cheap fruit.

For two months, the place Mr Borisov and his friend Andrei have called home has been a small portable building in a temporary camp outside Brierley village. At the peak of the fruit-picking season, the camp held more than 1,000 workers. A camp in Marden, seven miles south of Leominster, houses 1,400 workers, most of whom are Romanians and Bulgarians who, unlike other eastern Europeans, have limited working rights in the UK and cannot change jobs.

Workers who spoke to The Independent this week complained that many of the "pods" in which they live, which measure little more than six metres by three metres, sleep four people and are stifling in the heat. Caravans, meanwhile, often slept seven people. S&A Group, however, said only 20 pods on the site ever held four people and only because employees asked to be together.

On the days when work is available, it usually begins in the early hours. Employees are bused to fields of strawberries housed under plastic greenhouses known as poly-tunnels.

While the work may be tough, what angers the migrants the most is that they are rarely asked to put in more than four hours a day, meaning they cannot save money and have nothing to do during the day. Many congregate in Leominster town centre which in the summer suddenly resounds with a multitude of Slavic languages.

Paraskeva Bukovska and her husband, Asen, came to work for S&A Produce three months ago, along with 70 people from their village in western Bulgaria. Virtually all the adults in the village had to work abroad, she said, because there were no jobs at home.

They assumed that they would be needed throughout the summer but earlier this week they and 346 others received a letter saying they were being let go after just three months because the season had finished early.

"We never knew we would end up working less than six months," she said. "All the money we have saved will go on our airfare back. I suppose we will have to search for a job but it will be difficult to find work now."

Asked whether she would consider returning to Britain next year, Mrs Bukovska replied: "I don't think so. I love England and English people. But English employers? No thank you."

S&A: The company – and what it pays

* S&A Produce (also known as S&A Davies) is one of Britain's largest fruit growers and only supplies major supermarkets. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Spar are its biggest customers. It supplies a third of all strawberries sold in Britain.

* Each year, the company grows 13,000 tonnes of strawberries, 450 tonnes of raspberries, 70 tonnes of blackberries, 500 tonnes of asparagus and eight million cobs of corn.

* The company began growing fruit seven years ago after replacing much of its hop crop and largely relies on foreign seasonal workers.

* It is one of nine companies in the UK approved to take part in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which allows people from outside the EU and Romania and Bulgaria to enter the UK to work.

* In 2005 more than 300 S&A workers downed tools and occupied roads in protest over pay and conditions.

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