Immigration: In the town where the gangmaster is king

Boston is booming, thanks to an influx of migrant workers. But the strains are clear. By Cole Moreton
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The Independent Online

Bloody foreigners. They come over here and take our jobs, don't they? Or do they? And where do they come from? And how many of them are there? Nobody really knows, it emerged last week, as ministers tied themselves up in knots over the figures and David Cameron attempted to seize control of the political minefield called immigration. But in Boston, Lincolnshire, far away from Westminster, these questions are about more than mere political posturing.

Here the streets around Central Park are busy before dawn, as men and women from Eastern Europe wait for the vans that will take them to pick or pack fruit and vegetables in the fields and factories. "The gangmaster system rules the town," says Marta, a 28-year-old who came from Warsaw four years ago. "It is a total disaster. People work for 12 hours, seven days a week, for very little money. All the Poles live together in overcrowded houses paying ridiculous rents to the gangmaster. They travel together and they have no money or time to learn English. What chance do they have?"

Alison Fairman, an advice worker trying to help the Poles and Lithuanians and others who have come to the town, compares it to "the old days of the docks when people waited around for work and if it didn't come they starved. The trouble is that nobody is counting them properly. Nothing adds up."

Schools, hospitals, services are all planned and funded on the basis of official figures that say there are 54,000 people in Boston. But since 10 more countries joined the European Union in 2004 there has been an influx of migrant workers, far bigger than anyone expected, that doesn't show up in the figures. "There may be 12,000 more people in Boston than was thought," Ms Fairman says.

The town has a greater discrepancy than anywhere else outside London, according to the Local Government Association, which called on Thursday for an extra £250m to help the doctors, teachers and social workers across the country struggling to cope with a wave of legal immigration from Eastern Europe. "No one has a real grasp of where migrants are settling," said the chairman of the LGA, Sir Simon Milton, "so funding isn't getting to the right places."

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Peter Hain, claimed that 2.7 million jobs had been created since Labour came to power and only 800,000 of those had gone to people from overseas. But he was wrong and had to apologise to MPs, saying it was actually 1.1 million foreigners in these jobs. That was still less than half, said the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, confidently. Only it wasn't. She was wrong too. The total turned out to be 2.1 million new jobs.

So what? Those keen, clever immigrants have boosted the economy, haven't they? That is one side of the highly polarised immigration debate, heard from those who suggest that to express any doubts about the benefits of their being here plays into the hands of far-right groups such as the BNP. There is certainly evidence to support that enthusiastic point of view in Boston, a faded port that has been revitalised.

Local young people don't stay long; they tend to leave because the work is agricultural and mostly low paid. The giant farms and factories that dominate the landscape around the town could not survive without a cheap, flexible workforce, and if the young locals won't do it then the Poles and others will. Their needs have kept schools and hospitals open. The Polish cafés and food stores are not the only shops grateful for extra bodies. "Migrant workers have brought Boston back to life," says one local businessman.

But he doesn't want to be named. One reason for that is what he calls "the mood change" of the past week, which started when David Cameron laid out Conservative plans for tighter controls. He did it in a way that drew unexpected praise from Trevor Phillips, head of the new Equality and Human Rights Commission, who said it was the first time he had ever heard "a party leader clearly attempting to deracialise the issue of immigration". (That impression was spoiled for viewers of Sky News, however, when they heard presenter Julie Etchingham interrupt the speech. She thought she was off air and making a private joke. The Tory leader said his party's response to the rising population was obvious ... and she said, "Extermination".)

Labour responded to Mr Cameron by announcing that the restrictions on incomers from the new EU countries Romania and Bulgaria would continue. This reinforced the position taken by Gordon Brown, who had used words the BNP would have been proud of in promising "British jobs for British workers".

So what is the truth? Are we being overrun, or is the fresh blood giving the nation new life? Boston is a good place to find out. The Stump, the highest parish church tower in the country, is a beautiful sign that Boston was once one of the country's most significant wool exporting ports. Now it is importing people in their thousands.

The surrounding farms and industrial estates pick and package a quarter of all fruit and vegetables sold in British supermarkets. Even now, in the bitter autumn wind, men and women are cutting cauliflower with long machete-like knives. If they cut themselves they will probably not be taken to hospital, because that would cost money. Gangmasters do take a very holistic approach to "caring" for their workers – getting the wages back by selling them housing, food from their own shop, vodka or hard drugs, or prostitutes – but they have little mercy.

"If I get sick I would lose my job, then that means I would lose my place to stay, and then what?" said Boris, outside a Polish barber in the town. He is one of those who have brought education and determination, forming a different class of migrant, like Marta. She came during her master's degree at a Polish university, not intending to stay, but met and married a man here. When local firms turned her down because of her nationality she was so determined to work in an office that she volunteered at first, for nothing. Now she has a wage. New Europeans like her will do well, however hard it is at first.

Out in the fields, though, the new arrivals have changed the rules for everybody, including the locals. If a supermarket suddenly decides to run a special offer on bags of carrots, the producers need more workers at short notice. The gangmasters provide. So everyone is happy, aren't they?

"No," says Maggie Peberdy of the Citizens' Advice Bureau, "because nobody talks about the effect this has on local workers. If you're 50 years old and have been working for the same company for a long time, you're in big trouble. You may be getting slow and a bit arthritic, but the boss can get in a Pole who is younger and faster. He will work seven days a week, at all hours, and he'll be paid piecemeal with no sick pay, no holiday pay, nothing. Unless you accept those terms too you may be out of a job."

That's not all. Schools have been saved, but they are also under pressure. Last year 96 children without English unexpectedly joined Boston primary schools, which had 85 already. "There are others things you can't talk about because you get accused of racism," says Ms Peberdy, who is no racist. "One is housing. There is a myth that they are all young, fit and single, but if you put people like that together in vast numbers they soon stop being single. They make couples, and then babies. They may have to be considered a priority for housing help. Their needs will be perceived as greater than those of local people, who may get upset."

These are not the words of a BNP campaigner. They are spoken by someone who has demonstrated a commitment to caring for needy people, whoever they may be. But she is also being daringly honest. "There are not great tensions here, but I fear they will become a lot greater when local people realise that the world of work has changed here, for them and their children, probably for ever."

Back from the fields, a few men sit in Central Park to smoke, drink and listen to a Polish radio station broadcasting from Norfolk. They have nowhere else to go, except those overcrowded houses where landlords have been known to rent the same mattress for shift workers to share.

"Local people say they can't go to the park because it's full of foreigners," says David de Verny, a chaplain to migrant workers, "but they never say hello to them." They make statements in other ways: an England flag in a window; five broken windows in a pub run by Portuguese. There is very little violence, though. "These are two worlds running parallel," Mr de Verny says. "They ignore each other. But I'm not sure how long that can go on."

Further reading: 'Two Caravans' by Marina Lewycka (Fig Tree, £12.99)