Each summer, many Eastern Europeans come to Britain, to work on farms.
One of my clients is a Polish student named Sylwia, who suffered bad injuries on a strawberry farm in Kent.
Sylwia is studying for a master’s degree in administration.
She would pick fruit in England each summer, to earn money for her studies.
During the fruit picking season, Sylwia and the other foreign workers lived on a farm near Canterbury, in south east England.
On the farm there were approximately 30 or 40 workers, mainly Poles, Russians, Romanians and Latvians.
The foreign workers on the farm lived in caravans.
Sylwia shared her caravan with 5 other workers.
Most of the Eastern Europeans on the farm got the job through “word of mouth”.
Others found the job through an agency.
The system of growing strawberries
On the farm, the strawberries are grown inside polythene tunnels.
The tunnels are often several hundred metres long.
Inside the tunnels the strawberries grow on “grow bags”, mounted on long, thin platforms. The platforms rest on stilts.
The platforms have a built-in irrigation system, to water the strawberry plants.
The irrigation is switched on several times per day.
As a result of the irrigation system, the ground gets very wet.
This problem is particularly bad in the afternoons. The ground is usually dry in the mornings.
Furthermore, in that part of south east England, the soil is rich in clay.
This means that when the weather is wet, the soil becomes extremely slippery.
The workers walk up and down the aisles, picking the strawberries on each side and placing these in punnets.
The punnets are placed on trays, 9 punnets per tray.
Using a trolley, the workers then transport the trays to the quality-control table.
Here a superviser sorts out the strawberries into different grades.
After that, a lorry collects the strawberries and takes them away.
There is a quota system.
If the workers fail to pick sufficient quantities of strawberries, then there are two successive warnings.
After the third warning the worker is sent home.
The accident happened on Sylwia’s birthday.
That morning, 2 or 3 minibuses had arrived at the caravans at about 5:30 a.m.
The minibuses took the workers to another farm, about 20 miles away.
It was raining, and the farm was extremely muddy.
The mud was so deep that it overcame the tops of Sylwia’s boots.
Many people had problems slipping.
This made it very difficult to carry the trays of fruit.
A lorry came to collect the strawberries.
The lorry driver was a Polish man named Grzegorz.
The passenger in the lorry was another Polish man named Mateusz.
Sylwia’s accident happened when she walked past the lorry.
Suddenly, Mateusz reached over and grabbed her hat.
Sylwia immediately tried to grab it back.
At that precise moment, Grzegorz started moving the lorry forwards.
Sylwia slipped on the wet ground, and the front wheel of the lorry ran over her foot.
Sylwia was in agonising pain, and she felt faint.
One of the Polish supervisors was called Mariola.
Mariola told the workers to keep quiet about the accident, to prevent the driver from losing his job.
For this reason they invented a story that Sylvia had simply fallen over.
Sylwia was taken to hospital in an ambulance.
Some of other workers went to the hospital with her.
They told the ambulance crew that Sylwia had simply fallen, even though this was untrue.
As a result of the accident, Sylwia’s left ankle was broken in 3 places.
An operation took place, and metalwork was inserted on both sides of the ankle.
The operation lasted 1.5 hours.
The legal claim
I sent a letter of claim to the farm, but they ignored this.
I therefore obtained a court order against them.
Finally their insurers responded.
They were less than pleased to learn about the attempt to conceal the true cause of the accident.
This resulted in a full admission of liability.
Comments about the case
I visited the farm after the accident, accompanied by my Polish interpreter.
The first thing that I noticed was the general atmosphere of fear among the foreign workers on the farm.
The workers there have no rights at all.
If they fail to meet their quotas, then they are sent home.
People were nervous, and nobody wanted to be photographed.
Despite this, we went into the large tunnels and photographed the system of growing strawberries.
All the time we were there, the workers accompanying us were looking nervously around, in case the boss returned.
Secondly, I had expected to find an atmosphere of camaraderie among the foreign workers.
But this expectation was wrong.
Instead of supporting her, Sylvia’s work colleagues preferred to lie about the accident, just to protect their jobs.
Luckily the truth about the accident eventually emerged.