When Val Salisbury walked down her Herefordshire lane and into a giant plastic polytunnel where dozens of Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other east Europeans were picking strawberries, the workers were surprised. She was, after all, a 69-year-old Englishwoman using a walking frame. But when she started pulling up the plants all around her and throwing them to the ground, they understood why she was there.
Their reaction surprised Mrs Salisbury. According to people who witnessed her act of defiance against S&A Davies, Europe's largest strawberry grower, the east Europeans started clapping. As more and more plants went flying, they cheered her on.
By the time several hundred plants were on the floor and the farm manager had arrived, Mrs Salisbury was a hero not just for those people in Herefordshire who object to thousands of acres of plastic covered farmland, but to an army of students, the unemployed and professionals from all over eastern Europe who have started to arrive to pick fruit for British supermarkets - and who are already disgruntled about the pay and conditions.
"I felt so much better after my protest," says Mrs Salisbury yesterday. "The manager said that I did not know what I was doing, but I put him straight. We don't need these bloody strawberries and these polytunnels in Herefordshire".
Welcome to the English strawberry fields, where the end of May annually sees at least 5,000 people from eastern Europe descend on Herefordshire and Worcestershire to pick fruit. This year two villages, each of more than 1,700 people, have sprung up without planning permission, sporting 400 or more caravans, leisure centres, football pitches, internet cafes and even saunas.
The pickers are welcomed by the majority of people in Leominster, but there is concern that the migrant labour force is being taken advantage of. This weekend, a straw poll of 50 people working in the tunnels suggested many pickers are as angry as Mrs Salisbury. Those who spoke English said they were being paid less than they expected, that they had to wait for payment, that the accommodation was expensive, that they had paid too much to get there and that the management were unduly profiting from their stay.
Because of changes in the visa requirements, many pickers this year are not agricultural students, as in the past, but people such as welders, policemen and teachers seeking a better rate of pay than they get for doing their jobs at home.
"In Lithuania I earn £200 a month," said Mindaugas, a Vilnius policeman. "I thought I could earn more here. It looks like I am not going to. It cost more than I thought to get here; it costs more to live."
"None of us like strawberry picking," said Svetlana, a Ukrainian student. "Today I have earned £23. But I must pay £35 a week to live in a box with three other people. Perhaps I earn £150 in a week, but when I have paid for food, accommodation, tax, everything, maybe I have £70 for a six days. It's not good".
"The money is bad," said Artur, a waiter from the Czech Republic. "We waited days to have work. Last year we heard there was a strike here, perhaps here is one too, this year. It is like a prison. I have been given a yellow card already. One more and I am sent home."
"Work it out," said Waldemar, a Ukrainian student. "There are 3,500 of us. We pay £35 a week to stay here. The season is 20 weeks. That's millions of pounds they get from us."
Documents drawn up by S&A Davies and seen by the Guardian set out the terms and conditions for workers, who live four or five to a room. They must pay £26.25p a week for accommodation, £3 a week for sewage and waste collection, £2.25 for electricity and £2.75 for leisure facilities, including a TV set, football pitch and disco. For £30, they have access to medical and translation advice.
The documents suggest a strict regime. Pickers can be sacked for eating a single strawberry, for stopping work, going to the toilet in a hedge, or for smoking indoors. If rooms are not "clean and tidy", they can be asked to leave. If they want to invite a visitor to the camp, they must ask permission two days in advance. "I have never been anywhere like this," said Irynya, a Ukrainian housewife.
Yesterday the company said they guaranteed pickers £5.05 an hour when there was work, and a bonus if they met targets. But they said that at the start of the season or in bad weather, they could not guarantee hours. "When 3,500 people turn up, it's hard to get everyone going at the same time. We reduced the accommodation charge to £10 when it was raining two weeks ago," said Graham Neal, a manager with S&A Davies.
Mr Neal blamed agents in east European countries for sending them unsuitable workers. "The old student agriculture workers quota scheme meant we could go to an east European university and know people's history and character. We had superb people. Now the government says that we must recruit EU people. Some countries ... have sent over their unemployed drunks," he said.
Yesterday there were signs that relations between the company and many local people were deteriorating. Mr Neal accused a resident group which has complained about the tunnels of paying people in the camps to complain about conditions. "Last year there was a strike, but we then found out that Avra [the local resident group] paid people £100 each to complain," said Mr Neal. This was strongly denied by an Avra spokesman.
As a final irony, the east Europeans cannot afford to buy the fruit they pick. "Yes, we like strawberries but we cannot pay for them," said Linas Petraitis, a Ukrainian buying cheap white bread and margarine in the local Morrison's. "When you eat one, just think of us in the tunnels."
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