The flower farms where immigrants prove their value to the economy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For as far as the eye could see, thousands of daffodils in uniform rows protruded from the boggy ground. At a flower farm in deepest Cornwall yesterday, each stem awaited a flower picker to bend, cut it, bunch it and place it carefully in a tray, one of hundreds of blooms to be transported to Marks & Spencer or Sainsbury's.

Shoppers may not be aware of the Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian or Ukrainian labouring over their flowers. But for Ivan Dimitrov, a tall young man contemplating the field through a veil of rain, this will be his life for the next five months.

Despite his heavy waterproof clothing, Marigold gloves and woolly hat, he shivered slightly in the chill. The software designer from Sofia said he was now an accomplished flower picker, mentally and physically strong enough to earn around £70 a day. It was not always so, he admitted: "My first time I finished a row and felt like I could spit my liver out. I was exhausted at the end of the day, the muscles in my back ached.

"In the early days it was so painful. I thought I was fit, but I was not prepared, not at all. I didn't expect it to be so hard. The wet, lifting trays through the rows, bending all the time ..."

Against far more accomplished workers in their third or fourth season at one of the country's largest daffodil farms, he struggled as a "rookie" to collect blooms for which he was paid £15. By the end of the five-month season he was earning up to seven times that, and had lost 15kg in weight.

On New Year's Day, Mr Dimitrov, 28, was on the first flight from Bulgaria along with a small group of his countrymen and women, as well as Romanians enjoying their new status as EU members, determined that a few months of labour would earn them enough to pay for their studies, or set them up in business back home. They flew into a storm of hysterical headlines such as "Migrants: New rush to Britain begins".

Far from being a newcomer desperate to steal the food out of British workers' mouths, Mr Dimitrov was simply returning under the same Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) which had brought him to Britain last summer as a non-EU member. Unlike the previous eight accession countries such as Poland that joined in 2004, the two newcomers are far more restricted.

But this year, 40 per cent of the SAWS quota must go to them rather than Russians or Ukrainians who also seek this passage into Britain. Next year they will get 100 per cent of the quota, though farmers plan to challenge it, saying it will cut off a valuable job market from non-EU countries and drive some to seek illegal entry.

Mr Dimitrov arrived late at night in the Cornish town of Camborne to be bussed to the flower farm, where he lives in converted caravans alongside other Bulgarians, Romanians, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldavans, Polish and Slovakians.

Two decades ago, the flower fields of Cornwall were picked by the "mothers gang" but they have long gone. Students found less back-breaking jobs, as have workers from the 2004 accession countries.

When the SAWS scheme was closed down temporarily in 1988, 60 per cent of that year's soft fruit crop rotted with no one to pick it. Farmers rely on those restricted, desperate or willing enough to do the work.

Mr Dimitrov said he fell into the willing rather than desperate category. He worked his way through two degrees in information technology and computer science, and landed a job as a software designer, buying a £30,000 flat in Sofia.

"I am here to make some money, to help support my family, but also to prove myself. I was tired of office work. This is just more difficult physically, but I needed to get away from everything, from mobile phones, computers. I can live simply and save some money for my family. Everyone has their reasons. I felt I had something to prove."

There are still horror stories of gangmasters abusing the desperation of some. The larger growers, such as Nocton Ltd which runs Pendarves Farm where Mr Dimitrov works, say they operate a strictly regulated regime, audited by the larger supermarkets.

At 5.8p to 8.5p per bunch of 10 daffodils, some struggle to meet the minimum hourly wage of £5.35 at first, but soon average £300 to £350 a week, paying the same national insurance contributions as British nationals. Out of this, £40 is taken to pay for accommodation, bills and trips to everything from the supermarket to tourist sites.

Mr Dimitrov laughs at suggestions that he and his countrymen are merely seeking an easy life.

Ask him what he likes about the country and he mentions clean roads, pristine parks - and the British Museum. "It reminds me that England once had all these colonies, unlike Bulgaria. It was a rich country and has maintained that.

"We were on the first flight [to Britain]. I saw the reporters but I didn't talk to them. I knew what they wanted, they wanted to say we were illegal.

"The British people are worried about their jobs. We are not here to take their jobs. The main reason most of us are here is to earn a bit of money, see the country and go home, nothing else," he said.

The new Europeans

By Thair Shaikh

* Membership of the EU on 1 January gave Romanians and Bulgarians rights to free movement across all 27 member countries.

* There is no "open door" policy, unlike when eight eastern European countries, including Poland, joined the EU in 2004.

* Skilled Bulgarians and Romanians can work if they get a permit, are students or self-employed.

* Food processing and agriculture will be the only sectors initially opened to low-skilled workers.

* Under new rules from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a long-standing permit scheme for agricultural workers must give 40 per cent (16,500) of its places to Bulgarian and Romanian citizens.

* Predictions of how many will come in 2007 vary from 56,000 to 180,000.

* There is already a small community from both countries of about 20,000.

Comments