Peterborough has one of the fastest economic growth rates of any city in Britain, and for decades that growth has in part been based on the sweat of immigrant labour.
In the 1950s thousands of Italians came to the city to work in the brick factories that helped to rebuild Britain in the wake of the Second World War. In the 1960s and 1970s many Asian workers made Peterborough their home, helping to turn it from a medium sized town into a thriving city.
In recent years a new wave of immigration has brought thousands of eastern European workers to Peterborough to help pick and pack the fruit and vegetables that are grown nearby.
According the East of England Regional Authority an estimated 60 employment agencies in the city are recruiting migrants to work in this sector. The work is generally seasonal, poorly paid and back-breakingly hard.
From the spring until the autumn work in the fields means that everyone can earn something. But during the harsh winter months many become increasingly desperate.
Now many migrants are also finding themselves victims of a series of scare stories that attempt to paint them as “dirty” and “scroungers”.
Socialist Worker visited Peterborough to see the conditions that migrant workers are living in, and reactions to them among the general population.
We started in a small copse off the Bourges Boulevard, a dual carriageway that cuts through the city. There we found Viktor keeping house in a small cluster of tents that the press has nicknamed the “shanty town”.
Viktor told us that up to 30 people would sleep at the camp at night, leaving at 5am to work in the fields or factories.
He said that those in the “camp” were paid so little that they could not afford to rent homes, or that their jobs had ended and they had run out of money.
There may be no shortage of jobs but many migrants earn as little as £36 for a 12-hour shift. Despite this, newspapers are quick to suggest that “the migrants” are taking British jobs.
And while only one in ten of the 5,994 new homes built in the city since 1999 are classified as affordable, the press also says that it is migrants that are putting a strain on housing.
There are currently 6,300 people on Peterborough’s housing waiting list. Nevertheless the council continues to sell-off homes under the government’s “right to buy” scheme.
The attempt to blame migrants for the problems of housing and poor wages has certainly won some support in the city – and many Eastern European workers live in fear of racist attacks – but not everyone has fallen for it.
Lay preacher Anthony Slack coordinates a small group of volunteers who attempt to help migrants down on their luck.
He told Socialist Worker, “They are sold a dream and come on the offer of work, but then it dries up, or they are exploited by agencies that pay them as little as £3 an hour.
“Some fall on hard times, can’t keep up with the bills and then get evicted. These people end up on the street.”
Anthony agreed to show us a shelter that is home to four workers who were recently evicted by their landlord.
The camp was a pile of soggy sleeping bags hidden between a fence and bushes at the bottom of a garden. A few yards away they had dug a makeshift toilet.
“They are not down-and-outs, they just can’t afford to pay rent and bills,” says Anthony. “They rough it at night and go to work during the day.
“When their colleagues in their factory began to complain that the men had started to smell, we started to bring them clean clothes.”
Anthony’s group has also given shelter to migrants in their own homes, allowing them to sleep on sofas and floors – but they are battling both inadequate local services and an attempt to whip-up a racist frenzy.
“Unfortunately there are many misconceptions being spread by the press,” he says.
“The biggest is that when migrants come into this country they get benefits and housing. There are even rumours that they receive handouts to buy cars.
“Sadly it’s not true. To get any benefits you have to work for a full year – with no more than a 30-day break between jobs. To even get on the council’s housing list you must be here for at least two years.”
“Some landlords are getting very wealthy charging £80 per-person per-week. They put up to 12 people in a house, making them dangerously overcrowded and a fire risk.
“When the council inspectors object, the landlords throw out the tenants, leaving many to rough it.”
“Yet if it wasn’t for the Poles, we wouldn’t have had two new schools built. They have been a great benefit to the city. They are used to hard graft.
“There are many businesses that would go under if it were not for the Lithuanians and Poles.”