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Catherine Slevin remembers the days when she relied on recruiting British workers, signing up twice as many people as there were jobs available and then sending a minibus to ferry them to work.
“They wouldn’t show up,” said Ms Slevin, director of Velocity Recruitment Solutions in the East Midlands town of Corby. “You would ring them to get out of bed.”
That changed after 2004 when, as Ms Slevin recalled, “the gates opened” and thousands of eager workers from eastern Europe — mostly Poland — took advantage of EU membership to flock to Britain for work.
Now, after the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Ms Slevin is wondering how the region will cope if Brexit removes what has become a vital cog in the local economy.
The influx of eastern European workers has so transformed commerce that returning to the labour market conditions of past decades may be impossible, however much Brexit supporters might wish otherwise.
“If everyone from Poland were to get up and go, it would be devastating,” Ms Slevin said. “Who is going to fill those roles?”
Corby is already short of labour for the kind of low-wage, low-skilled jobs Britons tend to shun. Ms Slevin was struggling last week to fill 10 jobs, while the rival Fox Recruiting Agency in Corby town centre has converted its shop window into a pleading billboard: “Urgent, food factory workers needed.”
Local politicians are worried too. “When I talk to local businesspeople they tell me they would struggle to continue in business if they didn’t have access to those workers,” says Tom Beattie, the former trade unionist who heads the borough council.
It is an increasingly familiar story in the East Midlands, a one-time industrial powerhouse that now hosts sprawling warehouses where much of Britain’s food is processed, its sandwiches made and its Amazon orders fulfilled.
But even some trade unionists acknowledge that many locals are simply not willing to fill such menial jobs — particularly with unemployment at a low rate of 4.2 per cent in the East Midlands.
“It’s only the migrant labour that’s keeping the food industry afloat,” said George Atwall, the regional head of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, calling the “British jobs for British workers” rhetoric of the Brexit campaign “a fantasy” as far as his sector is concerned.
Rather than resisting foreign workers, his union is now trying to bring them into its ranks. “Whatever happens with the Brexit, they’re here to stay,” Mr Atwall said.
Tom Pursglove, Conservative MP for Corby, also strikes a conciliatory tone, in contrast with tough government rhetoric on restricting low-skilled immigration.
“I have every confidence that ministers will get these policy decisions right — addressing free movement and ensuring we have the workforce our industries need,” he said.
Some 90,000 Polish-born people now live in the East Midlands, which has an overall population of 4.6m.
Corby, in particular, has a long history with imported labour. The Northamptonshire town is known as “Little Scotland” for the Scots who came in the 1930s to work in the steel industry — only for it to shrink 50 years later.
“We were always a byword for the wrong things,” said Mr Beattie, noting that Corby had suffered social problems more commonly associated with the inner city than a small town.
Now the town is taking advantage of its location to become a logistics hub. The population is up from 50,000 a decade ago to nearly 70,000 today. The hope is to reach 100,000 by 2030.
An army of low-skilled workers who staff warehouses, fill orders and package food keeps the town’s economy humming. “Boring, boring stuff,” is how Ms Slevin described it.
Companies generally pay the minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for such work and prize eastern European workers for their reliability and willingness to work overtime.
”I don’t believe you will easily convince English people to take these jobs,” said Kamil Mrozinski, 33, who saw few Poles but plenty of work when he arrived in Corby 12 years ago. “They were welcoming us with open hands.”
Speaking little English, he started on the lowest rung of the local economy: a sausage-making assembly line. “The time is going so slow, the sausages are going so fast. I’ve seen people crying in there,” he said.
Soon his language skills improved and he moved to a warehouse job at Staples, the office supply company, which was warmer and did not require a hairnet or heavy boots.
It is not only packing goods that requires foreign workers but also getting them to market. Chris Robinson, transport director at Corby’s Route Logistics haulage company, estimates that three-quarters of his drivers are now eastern Europeans.
They have filled a gap that opened when many older British drivers chose to retire rather than requalify under exams that came into force in 2014. Younger British drivers have failed to replace them.
“[They’re] coming to do the jobs that us English people take for granted,” Mr Robinson said.
Whether or not they will continue to do so largely depends on the exit deal Britain negotiates with the EU — as well as the atmosphere in the country.
Amid a rise in reported hate crimes after the Brexit vote, Mr Beattie tried to reassure foreign workers by passing a motion noting Corby’s opposition to xenophobia.
For Mr Mrozinski, the fate of sterling — which has hit the value of remittances — is at least as much of a concern.
But leaving would not be as easy as it once was, neither for immigrant workers nor for the East Midlands. Mr Mrozinski runs his own business in nearby Northampton, Free Accident Helpline. With a staff of five, it advises mostly foreign workers on accident and insurance claims.
“Most of my colleagues, after so many years, they have their own companies,” he said, noting that many of his fellow nationals are now not just housebuilders but also house owners. “They employ people.”
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