Tensions build in Shirebrook after referendum
The EU question divided the country '“ so what hope is there for '˜Little Poland' to stand together?
Evening descends on a quiet market square, and stall-holders are packing up after a day’s trading. But for the Polish shops and diners, the rush is just about to start. 3pm brings a shift change at Sports Direct’s main campus just outside Shirebrook. Soon the queues of warehouse workers will pass through town to pick up their groceries and grab a bite to eat.
We’re yet to see the changes it will bring, but, for better or worse, Shirebrook is certainly one place where the impact of the EU referendum will be felt.
Many areas around Britain have diverse communities, but Shirebrook is unique for its transformation over the past decade, from a struggling ex-mining town characterised by its nostalgia for the industrial glory days into a fractured, anxious, albeit sleepy town.
In a town of roughly 10,000, approximately half are from Eastern European backgrounds. But after six decades of Polish people living in the East Midlands, tensions have reached a climax in the past few years.
In May last year, a polish man, Piotr Karasinski stabbed another Eastern European in the chest and was later jailed, causing further animosity from people feeling like Shirebrook wasn’t safe anymore.
Across the summer, a rise in anti-social behaviour, street drinking and violent disorder became intolerable for some, prompting a series of street protests with locals crying out to police to take their town back. Then Shirebrook attracted national attention when a convicted sex offender, Marcin Jaworski, was found to be living here without the knowledge of authorities. The case raised questions over the ease with which offenders can slip through customs in a Europe that doesn’t pay enough attention to its borders. Jaworski was actually mislabelled a ‘rapist’ after a relatively arbitrary offence, but the ensuring rage forced him to return home to Poland with fears from his parents that he ‘might be lynched’.
Heating Engineer Troy Kissane is the spokesman for Shirebrook Together said since the protest, police upped patrols and the local tensions were cooled.
“Since then there’s only been small incidents,” he said. “The police have nipped it in the bud with street drinking, but there’s still two very separate communities. Engish and Polish don’t mix, or most don’t. In years to come the kids will integrate.
“We’ve got a lot of people in Sports Direct and they’re all working, and as long as they’re contributing then we’ve got no problem. Our issue has been with the offenders an the troublemakers who have previous abroad and are coming in.
“It’s too early to say what will happen but I’m hoping it will stop Eastern Europeans coming in. It’s not a race thing, we don’t want to stop people coming, but we’ve had way too many come all at once and it’s exhausted the village. We can’t take the mass migration.”
Young mum, Jemma Betts, 26, is still concerned about the behaviour of some people in the town, as teens ‘drink and smoke weed down back alleys’, making the parks a no-go zone. And she’s not alone.
But Polish couple Krystian Wolak and Anna Lejmanowicz also said the trouble caused by a few is bringing down the whole community.
“There was a guy that came here and he was in trouble with the law, that caused problems,” said Anna, 25, referring to Jaworski.
So there’s a worry Shirebrook will change when the terms of exit kick in.
“We don’t know how yet. We will have to see,” said Krystian. He and Anna have made a home here, started a family with his girlfriend and now the pair, who both previously worked at Sports Direct, have a son who’s never known anything but England as his home.
Anna added: “There might be more tension, hostility – the young people coming here, too many have problems with the law, and if we have a problem, the English people have a problem with us.”
But even Krystian believes leaving the EU is a good thing.
“It’s more jobs for us,” he said. “I don’t want Romanians, any country coming here – it’s too many. It’s a problem.”
Shirebrook butcher Darren Watts says that ‘Little Poland’ has got a bad name, but the stereotypes come down to only a few troublemakers.
He added: “I’ve got no problem with the Polish community at all. They come here, they work, they shop. Some cause trouble, some don’t. You get more trouble from the English guys, but since the pubs have gone that’s come down.
“Shirebrook has a reputation, they class is as Little Poland, but it’s the same as anywhere.”
Similarly Marcin, a local business owner, says the apparent reputation the town has won in the press might be exaggerated. For him, the community is generally well integrated. The only thing separating people is news reports that generate a national fear of migrants.
He added: “Shirebrook had serious problems maybe ten years ago, people were un-welcoming, but now it’s a place where Polish want to come because the English are used to them, they get along. Everywhere you ever go has Polish people, Indians, Pakistanis, whatever. Cities everywhere have minority communities. Shirebrook is an aged population, nobody here is working, so who would be working and paying tax if the Polish weren’t here?
“A few bad people give us all a bad reputation. People drinking in the street, there were maybe ten of them, and now suddenly ‘all Poles drink in the street.’ It’s not true, most of us are normal people, we have jobs, families.”
So what’s going to become of Little Poland now we’re leaving the EU?
Like a lot of places around Britain, Friday’s result has seen a marked rise in local tensions and even hate crimes.
Dr Beata Polanowska at Signpost for Polish Success, an organisation that works with people in Shirebrook, said there was huge concern over the rise of tensions since the referendum.
She said: “People I speak to feel that they are very frightened and threatened. With the stories emerging of attacks on people in London, we are finding out that people have received comments locally asking ‘when are you leaving, when are you going back home?’
“Children around the playground are asked ‘when are you going back to Poland?’ People say they have never been treated this way before, but only since the referendum, we are receiving those comments from our neighbours. So we are seeing more, small manifestations of tension.
“What will happen after Article 50 comes in, whether we have to change our status – some are worried that they will be deported and while I know myself that this shouldn’t happen, those are the worries of the Polish community.”
The feeling on the street is that leaving will do very little to ‘return Shirebrook to the villagers’ and the European workers are confident they can stay.
But actually their future of the main employer in the area. Sports Direct, hangs on the company’s ability to operate in the UK if the trade climate changes, and there’s speculation that the retailer’s Shirebrook base would have to move
Billionaire owner Mike Ashley is largely held responsible for Shirebrook’s transformation after the company brought the business here in 2005 - the year after Poland joined the EU.
His warehouse and factory was exposed recently for exploiting thousands of workers, Polish, Latvian or otherwise, whom don’t ask questions, accept horrendous terms of employment and despite concerns over the legality of pay rates, still earn more than they would back home.
But without his discount labour, can Mr Ashley maintain his cut-rate business?
Michal, one of the 3,000 Eastern Europeans who work at the campus, says he isn’t so sure.
He said: “80-90 per cent of people here are foreign, so he can’t afford for them to leave.
“Leaving the EU - maybe it will be good for the economy. You give much money to the EU and get less back so if you leave you will save that money.
“But if the foreign people have to leave and people like Mike Ashley must Employ English people. It’ll mean higher wages. English people wouldn’t work here - for that money, in those conditions? No, never.”
VOICES FROM SHIREBROOK
Former Sports Direct employee Graham Bletcher, 59, said: “I think Mike Ashley might even sell up and go to Poland. I used to work there on a Saturday and Sunday cleaning. I love the Polish guys – I have no problem with the Polish community.
“They only come here to find work, can you fault them for that?
Mum Gemma Betts, 26: “It’s dead round here now, the shops are shutting. You can’t go out at night. I’m not racist but I was with my daughter and there was a guy stood out with it all hanging out, at 1 in the afternoon. They’re always drinking and smoking drugs in the back lanes, and this is what Sports Direct has brought here. It’s got worse. You can’t go to the local parks because of the gangs, and it’s not just the Polish, the English are just as bad, and this behaviour just isn’t being sorted. Nothing will change.”
Corey Hall, 19, works in a betting shop on the Market square and said he voted to stay,
“There is a lot of Polish but I don’t see the problem. People do get annoyed because they feel like they’re taking over, but it’s wrong that they think that.
The town gets a bad reputation, people role their eyes when you say Shirebrook, but it’s really not that bad.”
Krystian Wolak, 26, who came to Shirebrook two years ago, with girlfriend Anna, said: “There is so many friendly English people, it’s nice. I came here because my sister told me about Sports Direct and it’s the only place around you can work if you can’t speak English. I couldn’t speak English when I came here but I took a course. It’s hard to get work if you don’t have the language.”
Matt Higginson, 19, works in IT from Warsop: “I hope it doesn’t get out of control.”
Krystian Matusczak, IT technician originally from Poland: “The economy will crash I think but the experts cannot predict, so time will show.
For the next two years there will be no changes.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen now I just hope they’re not going to send us back, I’m going to try to get British Citizenship.
“I have two kids so I hope there is no problems to stay here, I’m minding my future in the UK.
Arjun Mammen, 25, also an IT technican: “It’s not good news is it. I voted to stay.
“The people who voted to leave have only seen the immigrants around them so they don’t think about the numbers they only think about their own circumstances, but even if we control immigration we’re not going to kick everyone out, so I don’t see a massive change.”