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British Employers Begin To See A Pre-Brexit Exit Of Foreign Workers


The United Kingdom won't leave the European Union until 2019. But some U.K. employers are already feeling a Brexit effect. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the county of Kent.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yani Radev is revving up his forklift at the Moat Farm, about 50 miles southeast of London. He came here last year from Bulgaria for work.

YANI RADEV: I was a picker. I was picking apples last year.

LANGFITT: That sounds like hard work. Is it hard work?

RADEV: Yeah, it's quite hard, especially when it rains.

LANGFITT: But it was worth it because Radev could earn four to five times what he made back in Eastern Europe. After last summer's Brexit vote, though, the value of the British pound plunged, cutting the U.K.'s wage advantage.

RADEV: It's not that attractive as it was before Brexit.

LANGFITT: Radev noted the experience of some Bulgarian friends.

RADEV: Well, they had the opportunities to come here and work in farms and construction. They also had other offers for Germany. The money was a bit better.

LANGFITT: Ten to 20 percent better, Radev says. So they headed to Germany instead of here.

JAMES SIMPSON: We are seeing fewer workers returning. We used to have a very high percentage of what we call returnees. Seventy, 80 percent of our staff would return back the next year.

LANGFITT: James Simpson manages Moat Farm and three others in the county for Adrian Scripps, a top fruit grower here. Simpson says the returnee rate this year could fall as low as 60 percent, which he says would be a big drop. Farms rely on more than 200 seasonal workers, mostly from Eastern Europe, to pick apples and pears.

SIMPSON: So what we've got to do, we've got to consider ways of making it attractive for them to come...

LANGFITT: By offering things like a 50-percent refund on accommodation fees and better Wi-Fi. But that's just a temporary solution. In Brexit negotiations, Simpson and other employers want the U.K. to ensure that labor will continue to flow smoothly from the European Union. That will be tricky.

SIMPSON: We appreciate in the country, there's a lot of resistance to the completely free movement of people. So we've got to have something that manages that. It's a difficult thing. And we've got to - you know, we've got to make a square peg fit in a round hole.

LANGFITT: Brexit is having an impact far beyond farms. Jonathan Portes, a labor economist at King's College London, explains.

JONATHAN PORTES: For many Europeans, both people living here now and people who want to come, Brexit is seen as a sort of a rejection by the U.K. of not just the EU but of Europe.

LANGFITT: Which has made some feel unwelcome, like Samuele Marcora. He's a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Kent. Originally from Italy, he spent two decades in the U.K.

SAMUELE MARCORA: So I never felt like a foreigner at all...

LANGFITT: Until last year's Brexit campaign. Marcora spoke over Skype. He recalled when his wife, who suffered from cancer, went to buy medication. The clerk noted how expensive it was, suggesting she was a foreigner exploiting England's National Health Service. Marcora's wife works as a mathematician for the U.K. government. She told the clerk she paid taxes like everybody else. But when she returned home, she broke down.

MARCORA: It was the first time she cried in connection to her disease, which is crazy.

LANGFITT: Marcora's now looking at jobs in Australia and back home in Italy, not only because he feels less welcome but also because he doesn't know what his future holds. The United Kingdom has not yet spelled out exactly how it will treat EU citizens here after Brexit.

MARCORA: We are kind of bargaining chips, not basically in this negotiation. We don't know exactly what's going to happen to us in terms of status here for the next year and a half. And this is definitely something that may push me to leave...

LANGFITT: ...Which would make him part of what many expect to become a Brexit brain drain. That may satisfy people who voted for Brexit to reduce immigration. But economists say it'll leave the United Kingdom poorer. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Kent, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "SMOKE SILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.