From ‘Venice of the Fens’ to magnet for eastern European workers

Crop-picking and food plants have lured migrants to stay in the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech, where a third of residents are from outsidethe UK


In the 17th century, the people of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire became known as “the Fen Tigers” because of their bitter opposition to the draining of the marshes that surrounded them. In time, the drainage made the town wealthy.

Fine, mostly Georgian, houses built by rich traders today stand on both sides of the river Nene from the days a century later when Wisbech was “the Venice of the Fens”, an inland port that boomed from exporting crops grown on the newly available lands.

In the last decade, Wisbech has seen change on a scale to match those days, following the arrival of thousands of eastern Europeans to work on local farms and in factories in the years after European Union expansion in 2004.

Seasonal labour is nothing new for the Fens. In fact, it has been a feature of life for centuries. In decades past, travellers and gypsies, students and the poor from London came during harvest time. But, afterwards, they left. This time, arrivals have stayed.

Lower wages
The pace of change has discomfited many locals. Some object they cannot get work, or must accept lower wages. Others simply object to foreigners. Many say Wisbech should get more help.

National decisions, or the lack of them, have led to increased immigration, argues local Conservative MP Steve Barclay, but it is local communities that struggle with the consequences, including pressure on school places or on the health service.

In 1997, Tony Blair’s first year in power, net immigration to Britain stood at 48,000. Within a year it had jumped by 100,000. Since then, four million people have come, while the number continues to rise by 150,000 a year, despite flailing attempts by Conservatives to reduce it.

Since 2004, 1.5 million eastern Europeans moved to Britain: a million have stayed. Poles fill one-fifth of all “packers, bottlers, canners” jobs, or nearly one in six of those in food-processing plants, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which campaigns against poverty and for social change.

Given trends, one-fifth of the population in Britain will be foreign-born by 2020. A majority living in major cities, such as London, Birmingham and Leicester, will be non-white by then, says author David Goodhart in a new book, The British Dream.

For many, the influx has made Britain more vibrant and exciting; a vastly superior place to live compared with the often stultifying 1950s and 1960s. However, such opinions tend to be held by those who have enjoyed its benefits, rather than by those who believe they have lost out.

Early on a Monday morning in Market Street, as the town slowly kicks into life, Wisbech’s changing face is visible. Eastern European accents match, if not outnumber, those of locals. One-third of the population is believed to be foreign. So, too, are nearly half of all early schoolgoers.

In the 30,000-strong town, which lies an hour away from thriving Cambridge, there are many such as 20-year-old Natasha Wright, speaking as she hands out CVs to local shopkeepers, who feel short-changed. “Yes, I do feel that it has made it more difficult for me to get a job ,” Wright, accompanied by her grandmother, Dot Turton, told The Irish Times. “I don’t want a life on benefits.” Ironically, the shop she had entered is run by a Polish couple, Adam Markiewicz and Justyna Wanska, who came to Wisbech nine years ago, first working for an agency before spending seven years in a local meat processors. The shop is one of many opened by immigrants in recent years in a town where little else is starting up.

“We have never claimed a penny from anybody since we came here, not a penny,” says Markiewicz, who works “up to 14 hours” a day as he and his partner try to get their Coffee & Square bakery and coffee shop off the ground. Irked by the “benefit cheat” representation so common in much of the British press, Markiewicz, who is preparing to rent out a bedroom in their house to make ends meet, notes that one Englishman came to view, telling them “that the council would pay his rent”.

“We’re happy here. We bought a house,” says Wanska. “It is tough here, it is not easy. But life in Poland was harder. We both lived with our parents there because we could not afford to live together. So we are staying here. We want to be part of this society.”

For years, Wisbech has appeared to be a town stuck in a rut. University attendance by locals is one-third lower than the British average, while the main local secondary school, Thomas Clarkson, was a byword for problems. Matters have improved since the school got a new home, but truancy and poor results remain a problem. However, many agree with the view of Norfolk West MP Liz Truss views that children of Polish immigrants in East Anglia are often the most successful in classes.

Much of the local work available lies in crop-picking and food processing, though the Irish-owned Moy Park chicken processor last year shed 300 jobs when it amalgamated its ready-to-eat division in Wisbech with its plant in Grantham, Lincolnshire.

Locals at disadvantage
“Some people who want to work in food packaging now feel that not having an eastern European language, and being British, is holding them back because it is so dominated by the migrant labour force,” Steve Barclay, the Conservative MP, says.

Farmers insist locals will not pick crops. Privately, many locals agree, believing the work was attractive only when it was paid cash-in-hand. However, some say farmers are happier hiring cheaper, more pliable eastern Europeans from gangmasters.

Pay rates are just part of the issue. Many local employers keep a minimum of permanent staff, filling gaps daily with agency-recruited labour. Workers often do not know until “six o’clock in the morning if they have a day’s work”, says Barclay.

Today, immigration features highly among locals’ concerns – 80 per cent of those who responded to a survey by Barclay put it as their highest priority. But views are formed by economic and social pressures, far more than they are by race.

The town’s three places on Cambridge County Council are filled by three UK Independence Party members, though one is facing benefit fraud charges and another an inquiry into charges he insulted disabled children.

“I believe in giving everybody a chance, but if there are not enough jobs for locals then why is the government letting people in?” asked the other member of the Ukip local team, Cllr Paul Chapp, who is mulling a run in the 2015 general election.

“Surely it is madness to say that thousands can come here and then worry about providing services for them, or, even worse, doing nothing to provide extra services?” he said over a sandwich in the Rose & Crown. Even immigrants have “become incensed” about the numbers, he said.

However, the tensions are less visible than in Boston in Lincolnshire, for example, or Goole in Humberside. Like them, Wisbech knew little about immigration before 2004. Last year, 200 people attended an anti-immigration demonstration in the local park, though 500 came to a pro-integration “We Are Wisbech” community event, held on the same date. “The ‘antis’ demo was a flop,” said one local.

On a list of irritations, overcrowded houses rank highly. Before Christmas, 300 police, home office and council officials raided eight properties in Wisbech and the nearby towns of March and King’s Lynn. Twelve people were found living in one small three-bedroom house.

In all, 2,300 houses are rented in Wisbech, many to immigrants, according to Fenland District Council. Numerous health and safety breaches have been revealed, “including examples of appalling overcrowding and serious fire risks”, it says.

Poor standards lead to other problems: “Logically when they are not working they congregate on the street because they can’t sit and watch TV so easily in their house because there are so many people there and often they are so squalid,” Barclay said.

Often, the properties are rented room-by-room to immigrants who pay £60 for a single or £120 for a double to gangmasters, who then also charge them £5-a-day to ferry them to surrounding farms for crop-picking or other work.

“One of the biggest problems is urinating, even defecating in the street,” says Barclay. “Some tenants are being abused, so there is a lot of street drinking. Obviously people need to pee. Town loos were damaged, so they put a charge, so people used surrounding alleys.”

Gangmaster exploitation
Sometimes, every element of immigrants’ lives are orchestrated, tracked and exploited by gangmasters. In Wittlesbey, a few miles away, one of them had installed CCTVs in every room to spy on his workers.

“Victims are [often] immediately placed in debt to a gangmaster who controls their affairs. They are paid wages well below the legal minimum for extremely long hours and their pay is often taken to service debt,” says Chief Insp Mike Winters. “Exploitation also has significant knock-on effects, particularly when work dries up, including street drinking, homelessness, anti-social behaviour and shoplifting. Victims are often too frightened to come forward and reluctant to seek help.”

Frequently, however, the problems lie not with immigrants but with the application of British law; minimum wage rates are not trackable because payments are not made electronically, for example.

However, there are signs of co-ordination. Fenland District Council has been given nearly £200,000 to step up house inspections and police “noise, waste and other antisocial behaviour and rough-sleeping” problems, along with helping some to go home. So far, six have been repatriated.

Some locals believe the problems will return in the summer, when people are more likely to use back gardens, or gather outdoors: “Cutbacks are happening everywhere, so we’ll see if the police are as active,” said one.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the home office, Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, and Revenue and Customs are now co-operating in a joint task force. Last month, two gangmasters lost their licences. However, court prosecutions are expensive. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority, an agency set up in the wake of the Morcambe Bay disaster to protect workers from exploitation, is understaffed and facing budget cuts. It also cannot impose civil fines – and fearing charges of more red tape, business minister Michael Fallon refuses to agree that it should.

On the Queen’s Road in Wisbech, Polish man Tadeusz Slesak, who lived in the town before he moved to rent a council house in March, has come to the Rosmini Centre for help in dealing with an overcharge by a mobile telephone company. Living “happily” for six years in Britain, Slesak, who works for a local pet food company, has three children, Zuschanna (3) and two teenagers attending Thomas Clarkson School.

Inside, local pensioner, Dave Watts (73), who began volunteering before Christmas, helps recently arrived Hungarian steeplejack Tamas Kosa: “Lots of people moan about them. I have found most of them to be quite polite,” he says, with a shrug.

Still with poor English, Kosa, with the help of Google Translator, tries to explain his skills. Until now he has worked for an agency. Intending to stay, he wants to get the necessary health and safety papers to work once more as a steeplejack.

Competition for jobs
However, Watts concedes the arrival of people such as Kosa has made life harder for locals: “I think they are trying to get work, they are not here to collect benefits, or handouts. But I have a son who has had a hell of a time getting a job.”

Established six years ago, Rosmini, run by Bedfordshire-born Anita Grodkiewicz, offers assistance to all in the community, with the help of 120 local volunteers. “It began with the arrival of the Poles, they started to come to [Our Lady & Saint Charles Borromeo] Church. Then they started coming for English language lessons. Later, they needed help with problems, such as MOT paperwork,” she recalls.

Local police have used the centre to build ties with the immigrants, while a Lithuanian man serves as a police community support officer. Problems such as street-drinking are being tackled in a way that they were not a year ago, she argues.

Feelings about immigration are not directed principally at either the immigrants or local councils, she believes, but at central government which, they feel, “has caused mass immigration”: “Fenland has traditionally been isolated, very introverted, while because this place lies on the borders of several countries it has tended to be ignored by councils and everybody else.”