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Lost In The Lowlands

United Kingdom

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Lost in the lowlands

Industrial agriculture exploits migrant labour everywhere. Nepali filmmaker Pranav Budhathoki goes undercover to investigate a little piece of Eastern Europe in Norfolk, England.

No-one in Swaffham slept that night. Police and immigration officials moved from house to house, flushing out the ‘illegal’ ones. Some were taken from their beds, some detained at work, others let go because there weren’t enough vans. By dawn the choppers had landed, the immigration officials had left and the police had done their job. A story dissolved, never to be told, never to be printed, never to be aired. How lives change overnight!

‘The inflow is mainly from the Eastern European countries and they use “waiting area” countries like Ukraine and Russia for easy access to the West,’ says Professor Marko Bojcun, Director of the Ukraine Centre at London Metropolitan University, who has spent the last couple of years researching the east-west migration path from the former Soviet Union to Western Europe.

These are the people ‘Fortress Europe’ loves to hate, the ones the United States labels as ‘aliens’, Middle Britain sees as asylum seekers taking ‘our jobs and benefits’, and the developed world christens ‘illegal immigrants’.

My life as an illegal worker started last summer when I rang Peter, a notorious gang master in Swaffham, Norfolk, eastern England. He has command over more than 200 illegal Eastern Europeans. All I needed to do to cross the threshold into this uncharted nether world was to go there.

Peter hides out in a pub most of the time, where he occasionally also does his business. I get an intimidating reception from the people inside the pub, but quite the opposite from Peter himself. Valencia, who is Polish, guides me to my pre-arranged accommodation: 53 Station Street, a rat-infested edifice and an eyesore for the locals. Scores of dirty working boots and raincoats litter the hallway. Four or five beds to a room, bare concrete floors, the stench of urine and greasy kitchen sinks, oily cooker and corroded utensils, rusty gas pipes and soiled floors.

Many workers already occupy the place I will be calling home for the next three months. I get a bemused look from them – a single coloured skin in a stronghold of East Europeans and Russians.

Next morning in the wee hours I find myself beside a road waiting for a van to take me to the workplace. National Insurance and work permits are not an issue. Peter hasn’t even asked me for my surname. Standing on the street this cold foggy morning I feel like an illegal Mexican waiting to be hired for a day’s labour in San Diego. A van screeches to a halt. The driver pops out his head and asks me if I am Pranav. An eerie silence fills the van when I hop in. A Nepali is a surprise. No-one speaks a word to me.

The Manor Farm Ducklings Company employs a huge number of illegal workers. Today another greenhorn (me) has arrived. Flora, an administrative assistant, guides me to a room where I will slave for the next 13 hours, lifting 15-kilogram packages of Marks and Spencer ducks, stacking them in a truck. She introduces me to Marian, a Polish man who started earlier in the day. Language stands as a wall between us.

Barely two hours into the job my vision blurs, my arms ache and my legs won’t hold me up any longer. I lose consciousness and collapse inside the truck. A minute or two later I find myself held by Marian. He has dragged me further into the truck to avoid the CCTV cameras that glare at us from every corner of the factory. He gives me the thumbs up and goes back to work – at twice the speed, to compensate for the time he has lost with me. We haven’t exchanged a word yet, but I have discovered a humane bond and my idea of ‘illegal East Europeans’ is transformed. In the darkness of the cold truck, against the agonizing body ache, I weep silently – a Nepali let loose in the lowlands of England.

After 14 days of 14-hours-a-day slavery at Manor Farm Ducklings, and the total loss of my self-confidence, I get paid – a little yellow envelope containing my recompense for gutting a duck every three seconds. They have subtracted $56 a week for National Insurance contributions, $56 for a bed like a trench and $6 for the white-van ride to and from work. And then there is Peter’s $48 ‘security deduction’. My wage is $136. It’s a rip-off.

Peter, one of the gang tycoons of Norfolk, is not a nice guy. If driving across rhubarb fields in a Range Rover while abusing workers at the top of his voice is all it takes for this ex-Londoner to do his job, so be it. After all, he says, when his workers do the midnight runner ‘it doesn’t mean a damn thing’ – new recruits will fill the gap within hours.

No-one is allowed to break his rigid rules. He segregates us on the basis of race alone. A handful of English welfare fraudsters work for him. They travel in a different van, work comfortable seven-hour shifts and get holiday and sick pay. Sycophantic Carl, Peter’s right-hand man, makes sure the rules are properly implemented.

The day starts as early as five in the morning. It takes an hour-long van ride to reach the fields. The long summer days of June are a windfall for gang masters like Peter and Carl: a battalion of illegal workers, a gang of mean supervisors and vast fields of rhubarb to be harvested. You slave for 16 hours a day bent double, five minutes for lunch if you are lucky, abuse and threats of deportation in between.

Peter is finding it easy to command more than 200 immigrants this season. For four months the Home Office hasn’t bothered to raid. It’s a zero-sum game, and profits in six figures are imminent. Peter has good connections. The other day Cheszek parked his tax-expired car on the wrong side of the road. A police officer approached. Cheszek got away with ease when he mentioned that Peter was his ‘boss’.

The Swaffham locals do not sympathize with this. You get a pitying or hostile look even from the sales assistants in shops around the market square. Because my skin colour doesn’t look familiar to her, the lady in the movie-rental store uses sign language to tell me the price of an item. The minute you walk into the Co-op store you are under surveillance. Pop into the pub and a creepy hush descends. Adolescents abuse you in the street.

An eerie silence fills the van when I hop in. A Nepali is a surprise. No-one speaks a word to me.

Three weeks later Peter moves me over to Norfolk Farm Produce, a nasty little vegetable-processing factory in Beeston, King’s Lynn. Hostile folks, unbearable working conditions – but shorter shifts. Peas, carrots and potatoes efficiently packed in cans for supermarket chains, from Asda to Safeway and Sainsbury.

Work starts with the sound of a siren. Another eternity of labour in a Great British factory begins. Twelve hours standing, with 40 minutes break in between. Anyone British can order a foreign worker about. A workplace can’t come any worse than this, I think to myself that night.

We have a Home Office scare. Some people just run away to hide in a nearby wood. Others wait for orders from Peter. We are herded into white vans and ferried to a safer place – Safeway’s car park in Swaffham. Peter and his cronies come along in their Range Rovers. He makes a few phone calls from his mobile. After three hours in the scorching heat we return to the hellhole we call home.

Having worked for three months and earned $1,568, I leave. My new employers are a Lithuanian couple. Wirgis has masked his identity and calls himself ‘Chris’, his wife Bejruta ‘Kelly’. They have a great vision – to amass as much money as they can by trading in humans, then drift on to Canada.

Serene Cambridge. Scenic countryside. Amicable social setting. No racial tensions. Vibrant nightlife. Students from around the globe have come here to get their slice of the world pie. But somewhere close by, in Chittering, is a place where grief and misery roll along with the potatoes on the grading-belt of a factory – The Produce Connection.

It is a sunny day. Nothing to hide. But the glass-walled factory veils a dirty secret, as dreary as a Chinese coal mine, as grim as a Bombay slum. Young white faces turn brown in the pervasive dust. Standing at a grader for 16 hours, your legs go numb, your hands go rigid and there’s an excruciating pain in your neck.

Among the 50-odd doomed workers in this factory, one speaks reasonable English. Yveta, a Latvian woman, is an intermediary between Don, the manager, and the Russian-speaking workers. She makes life agony for them. Today it’s Andrez’s turn. He manages to bark ‘You bitch!’ at Yveta before losing his job. Elated by his new-found courage, he strolls across the yard to the van – where he waits for another eight hours before being driven away.

I leave East Anglia the minute I have achieved what I set out to do, never to look back again at the modern-day equivalent of medieval slavery. For thousands of others it’s not that easy. With their economies back home in the doldrums there is no respite for them. Vultures like Peter and wage-slave factories like The Produce Connection and Manor Farm Ducklings stretch from the Scottish Highlands to the Midland plains and the Eastern lowlands, feasting on the vulnerability of the immigrants, the ones Fortress Europe loves to hate.

Police and immigration authorities turn a blind eye to the disorder they help to create. Every few months they launch a PR stunt, raid a factory, arrest a few immigrants, take them through Swaffham market square with sirens blaring. The locals cool down, politicians stop grousing for a while. The gang masters start their scavenging all over again.

Pranav Budhathoki is a Nepali filmmaker currently based in Britain.

How do they get away with it? Well, illegal workers fill the chronic shortage of labour in agriculture and manufacturing. The state provides them with nothing. They work for a pittance. They pay taxes like everyone else. They contribute to the economy. They help to make this part of England one of the richest in the country. Dead to the world in a cluster of caravans in the shadows of an open shed, waiting on street corners at dawn to be taken away in vans; humble, hard-working people cheated by fate and foxy folks. Lives lost in the lowlands.

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New Internationalist issue 362 magazine cover This article is from the November 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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