The First Food

Jam

The first food I ate after giving birth six months ago, was toast and jam. Plain, fairly boring toast, with one of those little sachets of jam that you get in a budget hotel. It is basically flavoured glucose syrup. I got to choose between jam and marmalade, and I chose jam. The NHS tea and toast is a classic. What isn’t talked about is what comes next.

Five days of hospital food followed. Naively, I thought that Bristol, a city which prides itself on its food culture, might have achieved a basic standard of fresh food being available in its hospitals. That wasn’t what I found.

Main dining room food

The food was presented in metal take-away containers that can be put straight in the oven. It wasn’t just ready-meal type main meals that were in these containers, but also the vegetables, mashed potato, chips, baked beans and almost all the elements of the lunchtime and main meals.

I could eat some things on the menu but not all, so I was given a cardboard box of meal options so I could choose something for each day that I’d be able to eat. It wasn’t special food, just the same meals as already existed jumbled up in order. When I asked about the food what was really noticeable was that I was talking with someone who didn’t know what was in the boxes, so she couldn’t really help.

It turned out that the cook was on holiday, and the cleaning staff had been left to run the kitchen. This didn’t matter too much, the woman explained, because there wasn’t much cooking involved, all that she had to do was put the boxes in the oven and throw away the left overs. So, even in normal times, there was no-one cooking whose job it was to deal with ingredients. Cleaning, in this context, was almost certainly a more specialised and skilled job.

I might be coming across as a privileged want-to-be food critic, but after several days with no sleep, and a very small new baby to look after, all I wanted was something that would be kind to my digestive system. Simple hearty freshly made soups would have been lovely.

One of my genuine favourites. The lentil stew worked well with a baked potato, but this was hardly freshly made.

I’d read the ‘First Forty Days by Ou, Greevan and Belger and learnt about the ancient Chinese wisdom of zuo yuezi which includes only eating warm nutritious food in the first days after birth, and I had vague notions of trying to put this wisdom into practice. It wasn’t to be. The food arrived in big metal containers, throw-away take away trays that were simply put in the oven at 3pm every day directly from frozen and that would then be available to eat from 5-6.30pm.

I found time difficult to manage in those early days, with doctors stopping by, a baby I didn’t yet know, and news to break to people again and again. The breakfast-lunch-dinner menu is just an indistinct feature of the background of the whole maternity experience, but it should be a supportive one, not an added worry to newly anxious parents. I know one new mother who after giving birth had to trek to the neo-natal ward every day to visit her critically ill baby. When she arrived back to her ward and the dining room 10 minutes after the 6.30pm dinner cut off, she found her meal that she’d gone to significant effort to pre-order, had been thrown in the bin. If there is ever a time when the reassurance of a good meal is needed, regardless of ancient Chinese wisdom, it is in the days after giving birth, be that at home, or in hospital.

A frozen metal box of baked beans in a pretty unappetising sight. Although there might be nothing ‘wrong’ with some of the meals, there is nothing right about them either. I chose five of the twelve cardboard boxes I’d been offered for the days ahead. I hoped some might taste better than they looked and wondered how many I might replace some with things that my partner could bring in. Yet there was nowhere to heat up food on the ward and it was Christmas, so we couldn’t expect much.

There was another option that was mentioned a lot, especially by midwives who were tired of despairing at what was on offer in the kitchen: this was to get take-aways. But take-aways are not a realistic option for people who are stuck in hospital for days, weeks or even months on end.

Take-aways as an alternative is also a way of individualising the problem, shifting the cost onto the patient and privatising the solution. It is a way of distracting from the problem of poor food and creating a division between those who can afford to pay someone less well-off to bring them food to their bedside, and those who need to recur to what has been provided as standard.

There was also a sadness to the ‘dining room’. Hexagonal tables and the large kitchen evoked a time when women perhaps went together from their wards, got lunch at the canteen and sat together in the dining room to eat. If this happened it was probably some time ago. Now, in a post-covid era, the standard of the food, and the attitude towards it, was instead fostering a culture of each-to-their-own deliveroo, behind individual blue curtains.

This seemed like a big waste of food and a big waste of an evidently large kitchen. It was designed for people to chop, slice, grate, boil, steam and roast food. Now all it was being used for was defrosting and disposing of food. It’s true that some fruit was available. But an over-soft satsuma does not really lift the spirits.

Helping women to breastfeed is one of the roles of a maternity ward, but women need to eat well and drink well to breastfeed successfully. There was a ‘drugs trolley’ that the midwives brought round the wards several times a day. This was well-stocked, replete with everything from paracetamol to highly specialised and personalised medication, but there was nothing equivalent in terms of food.

If this is the standard of food available to new mothers at St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol, a University associated hospital that prides itself on being at the cutting edge of research and practice related to birth and maternal care, in a city that has a very strong food awareness, culture and even an award for being a Gold Sustainable Food City, the standard is unlikely to be significantly higher elsewhere. We heard that down the road at Southmead Hospital there was also a lack of freshly prepared food and friends complained of ‘potatoes with potatoes’ being served for dinner.

This is likely to be the result of large contracts being awarded on the basis of cost only and in the context of a cash strapped health system. It would make sense though, if healthy Mums and babies are the top priority, to invest in more than throw away food and equip the kitchen at least as well as the drugs trolley.  

Potatoes with potatoes also featured in my best hospital meal.

Seasonal migrant guestworkers get a raw deal in UK government scheme up for renewal in 2022

The threat of imminent food shortages are forcing a major rethink of post-Brexit UK immigration policy. An expansion in the UK’s temporary migrant visa programme was rushed through in September in an effort to restore order at petrol stations, get meat processing plants back at full capacity, and ensure supermarket shelves are fully stocked for Christmas. This was widely publicised in the news, but people may be less aware that the Government scheme for all seasonal agricultural workers, from the EU and beyond, is due to end in December. What eventually replaces the ‘Seasonal Worker Pilot’ will have lasting repercussions.

Brexit and the return of the migrant guestworker

It has been estimated that 98% of seasonal workers in the UK food industry come from elsewhere in Europe. Despite a recent softening in attitudes of local UK workers towards the sector, there is reason to believe that the majority of workers in British horticulture will continue to come from abroad (principally Eastern Europe). Prior to Brexit, and under EU Freedom of Movement, these workers were able to enter the UK with their passports or ID cards and move between jobs according to their needs, the demands for their labour, and how satisfied they were with the working conditions. Brexit signalled the end of free movement and, for EU migrants now wanting to work in the UK, the options open to them are significantly more constrained than in the past. The Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme underlines this point and marks a transition to a system where the rights of UK-based workers are greater than the rights of low-wage migrant ‘guests’. Under the pilot scheme, workers may enter the UK for up to six months, are restricted to work in edible horticulture, and are placed with an employer by one of four intermediaries, which makes movement between workplaces difficult. The SWP was set up in 2019 and whilst initially capped at 2,500 workers currently (in 2021) accommodates up to 30,000 workers per annum.

Geographical Openness but Social Closure

The move away from freedom of movement towards guestworker migration, driven by Brexit, has brought with it more openness geographically in the sense that the UK employers can now look further for low-wage harvest workers. However, with this geographical openness has come a social closure: where workers are denied rights and entitlements, and kept at arm’s length in a state of permanent temporariness. This puts seasonal migrant workers at significant risk of poverty and exploitation. The social closure we have seen, and are likely to see, is far from ideal and indicates a problematic trend towards the normalisation of guestworker migration policies. Globally, guestworker schemes like the Seasonal Workers Pilot, effectively mean that home-grown workers have greater rights and freedoms than migrant ‘guests’, even when doing the same job. The UK’s new temporary migrants therefore occupy a far more precarious position in the labour market than EU migrants did under Freedom of Movement.

Time to Listen to the Workers

As freedom of movement ended and as guestworker visas emerged in their place, we found no evidence that workers’ views informed this shift or that workers’ experiences on the seasonal pilot were taken into account when deciding to extend and expand the scheme for 2020 and 2021. Listening to workers and worker representatives, however, one finds evidence of flaws in the guestworker model. For example, a 2021 report by FLEX and Fife Migrants Forum (FMF) found significant problems in the seasonal workers pilot with migrants seen to be at increased risk of trafficking for forced labour. As one of just four core labour standards agreed internationally, workers should also have access to representation. A lack of representation via trade unions or other forms of freedom of association is even more notable considering current safeguarding arrangements. Under the current Pilot system, the same operators are responsible for workers’ welfare and immigration enforcement. Research from around the world has found that where labour protections are linked to immigration control, immigration control undermines labour rights and migrant workers are left at high risks of abuse.

A New Year’s Resolution?

In late 2020, the SWP was extended and expanded at the very last minute without workers’ insights. We are hoping that, for 2022, a more considered and transparent policy decision emerges, underpinned by workers’ views and experiences, and producing an overall more equal and less exploitative policy resolution. Whatever one thinks of the principle of guestworker migration, there are clearly improvements that can be made to this increasingly popular migration and employment policy.

Five key adjustments stand out that are pertinent to the UK SWP, and beyond:

  • Most immediately, all low-wage guestworker schemes should make it possible not only in theory but also in practice to change employers. At present, there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that seasonal workers, if they are unhappy at a workplace, can move elsewhere. The issue of being tied to an employer is further exacerbated if one considers that most seasonal workers will also live onsite, often in relatively remote rural areas.
  • Secondly, a minimum guaranteed income should be available to seasonal workers so that whatever the weather, and however consumer demand varies, workers will know that leaving friends and family back home as they move temporarily to work abroad is financially worthwhile.
  • Third, for those workers who return season after season there should be a pathway to permanent residency, a pathway that may become accessible after say five years. Having regularly contributed to a country guestworkers should eventually be welcomed to settle permanently.
  • To avoid creating a two-tier system of national and migrant workers, workers committing to contribute to a nation’s economy should get full access to the public services that they may need during their time in the UK such as access to the NHS and other public funds.
  • Finally, when devising labour migration and employment policy affecting precarious workers workers’ experiences should be taken into account by governments alongside the requirements of business.  

In the absence of systems of free movement, guestworker schemes have emerged globally to supply businesses with low-wage labour and this is especially true in horticulture. In the UK, and beyond, a new year’s resolution is now necessary if we are to address migrant exploitation through this guestworker model and give hard-working migrants the reception they deserve.

The above article was authored by Dr Lydia Medland of the University of Bristol and Dr Sam Scott of the University of Gloucestershire and first published by the Countryside and Community Research Institute.

I am currently looking for respondents for the ‘Working for five a day’ research project. If you are working in the UK fruit and vegetable sector (as a grower or farm worker) please complete the survey here: https://spais.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/5-a-day

A Rotten Deal: Tomato Pickers and Online Shopping

The ‘click’ of an on-line shop allows shoppers to order in a new way, but has moved the consumer one step further away from the farmers and workers who grow and harvest food. Where do these orders end up? How do they connect to the experiences and struggles of farm workers who are ever more invisible at the other end of long supply chains?

I ask this question in relation to one crop, a food that served as a juicy red star of early supermarket adverts on the side of new inner city delivery vans: the cherry tomato. For my PhD fieldwork I learned two languages (French and Moroccan Arabic), and with a working, but far from perfect, knowledge of each, travelled to Southern Morocco where I lived alongside workers who respond to the demands of our daily, weekly or monthly orders for fresh food. These workers, the majority of whom are poor Moroccan women who are internal migrants to the region, plant, pick and pack the majority of tomatoes that are exported to Europe. In a recently published article based on this study, I explore the time imperatives of this export-orientated network bringing us the rosy fruit, at the click of an online order.

The notion of the ‘order’ is interesting. While most conversation in the region of Chtouka Ait Baha in Southern Morocco was in Arabic, certain words, as is the tradition in Moroccan Arabic, remained in French. ‘Demand’ was one of these; ‘le demand’ was the French for ‘order’. This mechanism of connection with the rich world, mediated via algorithms and computer systems in which fresh produce is bought and sold, is not negotiated, but ‘ordered’, or ‘demanded’. The orders are demanded in a just-in-time system where time connections that link us through this system exert daily, yearly and lifelong pressures upon workers in enclaves of production.

The impacts on working conditions follow the demand pressures. Hours of work are established by the requirements of freshness of the crops and the orders from retailers and intermediaries. For example, tomatoes should not stay in storage for more than two days. Therefore, if an order is not complete, workers must stay an extra two hours, perhaps late into the night. This is an inconvenience in any context, but a dangerous one where women workers are vulnerable to harassment and are warned not to be in the streets after dark. I met many frightened women returning from the late shift.

Needed but not valued

Agricultural workers have recently been recognised as ‘essential’. Yet, the way their work is valued remains unchanged. If anything, it has become more hidden with fewer consumers in shops looking closely at labels and asking questions. Across the world agricultural workers are undervalued and underpaid, despite being essential.

In Morocco, agricultural workers’ minimum wages provide a benchmark around which actual wages sit at and below. The legal minimum wage for agriculture is significantly lower than for other ‘industrial’ sectors creating an in-built sectoral discrimination. While industrial workers earn between £8-9 per day, agricultural workers’ wages are set between £5-6 per day. This is a fraction of minimum wages in the UK, and still a fraction of the wages of other low-paid agricultural workers in Southern Europe. This makes the reason for an increasing supply of food from Morocco to the UK and Northern Europe, crystal clear. The work is cheap, and this is assumed to be acceptable whatever the social costs.

Nature, social and reproductive time

It is easy to pose the plight of such workers overseas against those working in the UK. Yet, workers in countries like the UK, have perhaps more in common with workers at the end of long supply chains than is often recognised. In the contemporary context, workers in agri-industrial sectors are pulled by the same multiple imperatives of time. They work within both the disciplinary time logics and pressures of what EP Thompson recognised decades ago as nature’s time (weather, seasons and daylight cycles) and industrial time (regulated by clocks, agreed time-frames and integrated markets), as well as what we must recognise today as ‘social reproductive time’; that time involving domestic and care work, as well as the reproduction of society itself through having and raising the children who become the next generation of workers.

What all these undervalued but ‘essential’ food and farm workers have in common is that they must meet and respond to the ‘orders’ and demands of retailers who stimulate, mediate and rearticulate the demands of consumers. Online orders add a little more distance to a system of production in which invisible time pressures are already one of the crucial connections between workers and consumers.

The online order does not typically provide a country of origin on its fresh fruit and vegetables. So, if you choose a packet of tomatoes online, it will say which countries the food might be sourced from, but often not the one that it was actually produced in. Are these really tomatoes from nowhere? If we understood more about contexts of production, it would be easier to build connection with workers and employers, rather than increasing the layers of invisibility and control behind the order.

This blog was originally published in issue 19 of the Futures of Work online magazine. The original link to this blogpiece is here. The image is the Author’s own.

Does it matter that the UK relies on migrant workers to harvest food?

In the recent launch of the new migration research project MigResHub, agricultural labour economist Professor Philip Martin stated that he saw the future of farming in the USA as reliant on ‘machines and migrants, buffered by imports’. This is indeed the direction in which commercial agriculture is going. However, we don’t need to accept this trajectory. It means relegating agricultural work to the bottom of the pile for good and accepting as a given that people don’t want to pick fruit (when they have other options). This is not necessarily true, at least in the UK.

My new project on risk and resilience looks at work in horticulture, where much seasonal labour is required, so I want to focus particularly on the ‘migrants’ part of Martin’s prognosis for the future of the food system. Yet, the dominance of both machines and imports in the food security debate makes them important to comment on too.

Lang reasons that, due to Britain’s imperial past, we are used to assuming that other countries will feed us, but he argues that we should be wary of doing so for security as well as sustainability reasons. As I found in my last project, Moroccan workers producing food for Europe’s imports experience pressures such as low wages, a lack of respect and intense time pressures. Put simply, they face the same patterns of pressures as farmworkers within the UK. A reliance on imports therefore displaces social and environmental challenges to other places.

A mechanical engineer with an agricultural robot (image: This is Engineering on Flickr)

Machines have always reduced labour in agriculture, which makes food cheaper but not always better. This direction of travel, spearheaded most recently by proponents of AI and robotics, is at least partially self-propelled by those involved in producing ever bigger and more sophisticated machinery. Huge increases in research funding for automatisation contribute to an industry that has established a narrative of erasure of the majority of workers from agriculture within food systems. (Searching in the UK Research and Innovation Gateway for projects involving the terms ‘robot, agriculture, food and labour’ brings up 1,169 relevant research projects funded in 2019, compared with fewer than five a year between 2000 and 2005.)

The public debate over agriculture and migration has intensified in recent years. While farmers call for large numbers of temporary seasonal workers, nationalist sentiment keeps up pressure for tight restrictions on migration across the board. In addition, discomfort regarding working conditions plays on the conscience of consumers. This mix of concerns appears related to the haste towards robotisation. Government and industry specialists are now charmed by ‘agricultural modernisation’ (robotics and AI) and characterise temporary worker migration as a short-term fix before the mechanical hands are ready to pick. In 2018, Michael Gove re-introduced the UK’s temporary migration programme by saying that ‘… automated harvesting solutions are not universally available and so in the short term, this pilot will support farmers during peak production periods.’ Migration as a short-term fix is a convenient discourse, but insufficient. Not every task is easily mechanised, and while machines work best on large flat lands, the UK has many smaller hilly fields.

Temporary worker permits in agriculture are not new. We could say that the seasonal agricultural workers, who came to Britain at the end of the Second World War, took over from the Women’s Land Army. There is also a longer continuity of drawing on those at the periphery of the workforce for seasonal labour. In earlier times, Irish workers and Travellers were among those who met labour demands at peak times. What is common to all these temporary workers is their position in the labour market, which is low.

The seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS) is the UK’s temporary migration programme; it began as a volunteer scheme after the war and became SAWS in 1990. Access to the EU labour market led to its closure in 2014 as policy makers argued that freedom of movement made SAWS unnecessary. However, this ending turned out to be temporary. Following the Brexit vote in 2016, farmers feared, and began to experience, a lack of access to willing workers. A ‘pilot’ SAWS was launched again in 2018, initially with quotas of just 2,500 workers, which has been increased to 10,000 workers from 2020 onwards. The continuity of demand is clear.

Migrant workers harvest leeks in Lincolnshire, UK (image: John M on Geograph)

Rather than just focusing on SAWS or migrant workers we also need to consider agricultural work itself. The prognosis of machines, migrants and imports takes as a given that workers, given full access to a diverse labour market, will not choose to work in agriculture. Yet, could this be more about the agricultural model than any naturalised preference of workers? Intensive production systems are indeed unattractive to many as a career choice, especially if you don’t own the land.

Nevertheless, many people are interested in producing food. In the UK, demand for allotments has quadrupled in recent years, and growing at home boomed under lockdown. This year, record numbers of non-migrants signed up to pick fruit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while many didn’t end up on the farm, or didn’t last long, this shows an interest in the work. Perhaps for those that dropped out it isn’t them who should be blamed, but rather the system. Some large UK farms are now described as ‘plantations’, with monocultures that require absolute obedience from both nature and worker. Rejecting this kind of workplace regime – which only became dominant after a squeeze on farms from retailers in the 1990s – doesn’t mean people don’t want to grow food at all.

The growing Land Workers Alliance, representing sustainable growers and farmers, is testament to the increasing interest among young people. So too is the LION (Land In Our Names) movement of black people and people of colour gathering to access land for sustainable projects in the UK. These movements are challenging assumptions about who can be a grower, and a farmer. If opportunities are provided for this to become decent and sufficiently paid work, an able, diverse and motivated workforce may just be available.

Does it matter that the UK relies on migrant workers? I think it’s more important that we don’t naturalise the assumption that only migrants do farm work. The ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign set up early in the pandemic had the benefit of reconnecting British people with the idea (and for some the reality) that we too can pick fruit. As people rallied to feed the nation, it’s just possible that the public became more aware of the essential nature of this work. Alongside machines and imports, it’s possible to aspire to a future in which migrants and non-migrants choose jobs that bring in the harvest – and that they are supported to do so.

‘Urban gardening vegetable harvest crop‘ by Markus Spiske on Flickr

This post was originally published on the Migration Mobilities Bristol Blog on 1st December 2020.

A ‘fresh’ start

For many years now, I have been researching work in food production ‘out there’: beyond the reach of a day trip and in languages that are not my own. I found the Moroccan tomato so interesting that I wrote a thesis on it. Now though, I want to know what’s occurring closer to home. What of the food produced in the UK? Who is working in the fields? Who is taking the risk that the supermarkets will buy their produce or not? Who is footing the bill, personally, socially, emotionally, for keeping the food coming into cities despite Covid 19, and despite Brexit? After farm work was recognised as ‘essential’ during the pandemic, have workers gained status, or simply more health and safety challenges?

It is to these questions that I am now turning. I want to know who is working to feed Bristol and how they are getting on. More specifically, I want to know about fruit and veg; that food group that we all eat. Vegan, vegetarian, meat eater or flexitarian; we all eat some fruit and veg. Even if it is highly processed into a form with higher ‘added value’: perhaps a smoothie or the filling in a pre-prepared lasagne. What’s more, the UK government want us to eat a specific quantity: five portions a day. Scientists also estimate that if everyone in the UK ate these recommended portions, then our average carbon emissions would go down because fruit and veg have, in many (but not all) ways, a lower impact on ecosystems than other food groups.

How workers and farmers are getting on isn’t just important in its own right, but it also affects food security overall. This is particularly so in regards to exactly those foods which we need more of in this stressful, challenging climate, when it is all too easy to reach for the beer, or the chocolate or the ice cream. Not that I want to get into the business of identifying good and bad foods, they all feed us. Nevertheless, dealing with the coronavirus epidemic and the news that obesity is a major risk factor in suffering badly from the virus, brings fruit and veg into the policy arena again. In the new plan to tackle growing rates of obesity, adverts for fast food will be curtailed before 9pm and there will be a ban on ‘buy one get one free’ offers on sugary and fatty foods, with new encouragement for shops to promote fruit and vegetables. Yet while the focus is on consumers and their needs, the availability of fresh ingredients for this pro-health recipe goes unquestioned. OK, apples do grow on trees, but they must still be picked.

Some people will have seen other news stories. Of crops rotting in the fields last autumn, of seasonal workers flown to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria in the middle of a pandemic, working when everyone else is asked to stay at home. Putting their own lives at risk when white collar workers are ushered inside. More stories, of a lack of seasonal workers and of British workers signing up when for a long time such work has fallen disproportionately to migrant and European workers [1]. These stories alter as we draw back from the pandemic and its outbreaks, through Brexit, and prior to Brexit. Yet the question of who feeds us and how, at what costs and taking on what risks, remains for many of us, out of sight and out of mind.

So this is my new project, and I start this week. In my kitchen, because we’re in a pandemic and that’s where I have a garden table standing in as a desk. I do want to reach out though. So, if you are, or know a farmer or worker in this sector, please get in touch, I would love to listen to your experiences and your challenges. Or even come and see them. I’ve taken flights and chased questions about food to places that look like they will produce answers, simply through their seductive difference to my own normality. Now I am interested in the everyday difficulties in the details faced by farmers and workers in the UK. I’m not looking for heroes and villains, but simply for people who work in the food system.

To be specific, my project focuses on the conventional (not organic) side of the sector. This is simply because it feeds the majority of our country and the city I live in. That could be those who produce vegetables that end up in packaging branded with union jacks, but which otherwise, are just normal. Just simple apples, or tomatoes, or cucumbers, with lots of plastic and stickers, or none at all. I want to consider conventional scale production as close to home as possible and marvel at its successes, struggles and contradictions. Considering ONS data and recent analysis we can observe that only 1-2% of workers in the UK works in agriculture, yet nearly 50% of food consumed in the UK is produced here [2]. How is this done? At what cost? Who is helping and making sacrifices so that the apples keep coming and the carrots arrive fresh and looking perfect.

A chard seedling attempting to grow in my patio garden.

1. See, Scott, S. (2013), Labour, Migration and the Spatial Fix: Evidence from the UK Food Industry. Antipode, 45: 1090-1109. doi:10.1111/anti.12023

2. The estimate depends on the interpretation of data and could be considered as much as 60%, see, Lang, T. (2020). Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and what to Do about Them. Pelican. p., 26