British war graves staff working in France and Belgium have been told to expect a 50% pay cut from next year following Brexit.
Workers tending the graves of soldiers killed in both World Wars were told of the change mere hours after Armistice day.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission emailed 32 staff, some of whom had tended the war graves for 35 years, saying they had to return back to the UK or face having their wages halved.
The gardeners, stonemasons and staff tend to the graves of the soldiers across France and Belgium, including those of the Somme, Normandy, Dunkirk, Ypres and Passchendaele.
The Commission gave staff three weeks to make a decision. If they stay, they will be moved to “local” contracts.
This would mean changes to their taxes and pensions in line with French and Belgian standards and will result in the loss of their overseas allowance payments.
Under a local contract, a British head gardener is being offered a salary of about £30,000 – which is around £18,000 less than they are earning now.
The Commission has reportedly offered the 32 staff members a one-off mitigation payment of up to £30,000 for the loss of the allowances. If they accept this, they will not be helped with repatriation costs, reports the Times.
A 61-year-old gardener, who wanted to remain anonymous, has spent 35 years tending to war graves across Europe.
He told the Mirror: “It’s shocking and it has been handled so badly. It’s just so unfair.
“We have all devoted our lives to looking after the graves of the brave soldiers who died and this is how we are being repaid.”
“There has been no consultation – an email arrived one morning which gave us three weeks to make a decision,” he added. “I feel so down.”
“We either have to return to Britain, where many of us haven’t lived for years, or take these terms which basically means our pay is halved.”
Another staff member said the offer of a lower wage made it impossible to “carry on”.
“I do love my work but I can’t carry on where I am [on the salary they are offering], so it’s quite daunting for us to think about what we do next. All the work we have put into it and they just treat us like s**t,” the staff member said.
“We don’t have any time to make a decision. If you worked outside the UK for that long you are now faced with not being able to afford the house you live in.”
Military historian Jeremy Banning accused the Commission of “hiding” behind Brexit to make the cuts.
“It beggars believe they are being rushed into making such a massive financial decision without adequate explanation or negotiation,” he told the Mirror. “Hiding behind Brexit is cowardly.”
The Commonwealth and War Graves Commission said in a statement: “These new arrangements will enable them [staff] to continue working in France and Belgium on a firm and legally compliant basis or to return to the United Kingdom if that is their choice.
“We accept that the timetable for a negotiated solution has been tight, but we have created a dedicated team to support staff with all aspects of the transition. That assistance is ongoing.”
Barry Murphy, director general of the Commission, said: ‘Whilst we understand the anxiety these changes bring, we believe the new arrangements will properly align this group of employees with our existing staff in France and Belgium so that they can continue to work in their chosen location for many years to come.”
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for 23,000 cemeteries in more than 150 countries worldwide.