Table Grapes: A hand-selected future of work

asda van with grapes

The supermarket delivery van that appears as if by magic is driven by a worker. The picture of table grapes, succulently drawing us into the marketing of this retailer, were almost certainly picked by a person, not a machine. Yet machines and artificial intelligence are involved too. Understanding the ways in which humans and machines are placed in relation to one another in the workplace is a complex challenge. Addressing it are social scientists who consider human interactions, critical management scholars who try to understand the organisation of work and finance, and legal specialists who are attempting to establish frameworks for the governance of the present and future of work.  

new working paper published by the University of Bristol’s Faculty Research Group for Perspectives on Work brings scholars from these fields together to ask: what is the future of work? Is it something characteristically different from the past and present? Or is it ultimately just a continuation of workplace dynamics today? Just capitalist relations of production and profit in different dress? In the paper, my colleagues and I do not dispute that shifts are occurring in the organisation and lived experience of work. However, we argue that these shifts are contingent on the present relations between capital, workers, technology and the social and ecological contexts within which work takes place. The future of work is therefore one that we know very well, even if the wolf has changed its clothes.  

Our paper takes a broad view of how work has changed, and will change. Many significant changes in recent decades relate to the spatial reorganisation of work. Consider for example that 83 per cent of the world’s manufacturing workforce now live in the Global South. This indicates a tremendous shift in the places and types of jobs available in different regions of the world. Alongside this has occurred perhaps an even greater shift in the world’s working relations as services have become the largest global sector for employment accounting for 51% of workers, overtaking agriculture which now employs just 26.4% of the global population. As recently as the 1990s it was agriculture that was the major employer with services very much behind.  

These changes have been accompanied by an overall trend towards urbanisation as, at the turn of the millennium and for the first time ever, more people lived globally in urban rather than rural environments. This broad perspective allows us to consider the changes in work. To begin with, as evidenced by the ever-increasing volumes of global trade, work now increasingly occurs in the context of political and economic relationships that are global in scope. 

We are reminded by Noah Zatz and Eileen Boris, that when thinking about ‘work’ what is “at issue is not only what is being done, but also by whom, for whom, and why”. Therefore, as important as thinking about what jobs are around, is to think about who does such jobs for whom. Here, we consider mobility again, but this time not the movements of things through trade, but the mobility of people. Labour markets are fragmented and segregated and who does what often relates to individual and collective histories and status, leading the work of some to be recognised with honorific titles and the work of others to go unrecognised or undervalued.  

These abstract questions can be very difficult to engage with and so in the paper we take on two case studies, that of care work and agri-food work. These case studies are ones which are closely associated with the future of work as they involve jobs which are poorly remunerated and can be arduous, as well as often of low-status. Many fall into the category of the so-called ‘3D’ jobs: Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning. These are also jobs associated with labour migration as high numbers of migrant workers often occupy these roles.  

The interesting thing about both care and agri-food work is that there are clear reasons in both cases why the people in these jobs are unlikely to be replaced by ‘robots’ in the short term. In the case of care work, the needs of those being cared for are complex, changeable and require emotional responses from carers – paid or unpaid. Furthermore, care is tied to the places in which those who need to be cared for are based. As captured in the concept of Global Care Chains some of these roles are highly dependent on migrant workers leaving others to care for their own families. These ‘others’ are both workers and family members. So even if there is persistent inequality in the way care jobs are organised, it seems likely that migrant workers and non-migrant workers are likely to continue working side by side in these roles, even if some robotisation also occurs. Whilst it is likely that more tasks may be mechanised, perhaps leading to fewer workers, the fact that people need to be involved at some stage is relatively non-negotiable.  

In the case of farm work we recognise that the long history of farming, as in other sectors, has involved the successive replacement of workers for increased mechanisation. However, there are still many tasks in modern food systems that require people. Ironically, like the grapes in the photo above, it is precisely many of the emblematic fruit and vegetables advertised in supermarket adverts as immediately available and fresh, that require careful hand picking. While it is possible to mechanically pick crops such as tomatoes and grapes, this renders the crops good only for processing, such as canning and ketchup for tomatoes. Those delicious looking ‘fresh’ products that draw us into the stores and websites still require hand picking.   

A further point to make is that by overemphasising the degree to which ‘everything is done’ by a machine, it can be difficult for workers to gain visibility, good remuneration, as well as respect and status in the labour market. Workers in these sectors are not doing unskilled tasks easily replaceable by machines; they are doing jobs that require skill, dexterity, fast responses to changing conditions as well as complex strategies for negotiating difficult labour markets with often undesirable working hours.  

There is a need to re-valorise work and workers, to recognise not just where robots are replacing jobs – their replacement by technology – but also where people in jobs are working under increased pressure or insecurity due to their increased relationship with technology. We understand the common use of the word robots here to really refer to a range of automated systems from computers such as the automated check-out tills to platforms such as Deliveroo. Both of these examples require many people for them to function. 

What we mean by ‘work’ – when someone works and does not – is increasingly important in order to value not just the worth of an individual who may not have their work recognised as a traditional ‘full time job’ but also to inform our legal systems and social systems which struggle to keep up with the evolving reality of the present as well as the future of work.  

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This piece is based on the Perspectives on Work Faculty Research Group Working Paper #1: The ‘future’ of work? A call for the recognition of continuities in challenges for conceptualising work and its regulation.  

The choice of table grapes was inspired by the visiting PhD student Miguel Angel Sanchez who has been based at the University of Bristol as a visiting student from the University of Murcia, Spain, and who is researching quality standards in table grape production.

This post was originally published in the Futures of Work on-line magazine, Issue 4.

Apples

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One of my early memories is of waking up, opening the curtains and seeing the large apple tree in our small back garden newly cut down. Now in a relationship with a tree surgeon, perhaps it’s time that I forgive my Dad for choosing to cull the tree. Apparently he did a deal with his mate ‘John the wood’ in the pub. My parents didn’t have the time to deal with the apples, and the tree was apparently overbearing in the garden that my little sister and I played in, so they chose space over apples. Even if I still feel sad about that tree, I appreciate the point about time…

Time is the latest ‘secret ingredient’ of cooking, or the lack of it. A food writer called Jenny Linford recently wrote a popular book making the point loud and clear: the missing ingredient is time. [1] Flavours take time, fermentation takes time, even fast reactions take time to practise and to perfect. The average British person now spends only 31 minutes a day cooking, down from an hour in the 1980s. [2] So, that means that meals need to be ready to go, and the supermarkets are meeting that need with not just ready meals, but also cooking kits, where the lettuce is already chopped, the carrots are already peeled, the meat is sliced, and the rice is portioned up.

If the time dedicated to cooking is lacking, then this is just the tip of the time iceberg. Time and the market for short cuts is the big bargaining chip of retailers at the moment. We are tempted by one-hour delivery although this is not actually what it sounds like as it usually refers to ‘one hour slots’ not delivery an hour after you order – unless perhaps you live in the very centre of London. However, same day delivery, door to door from all supermarkets and also new entrants to the market mean that we can save time by not even leaving the house. Yet it goes deeper than that. What about the time it takes to produce the food in the first place? This is where the apples come in.

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As someone researching work in food production, I’m slightly ashamed to say that one of the few things in my diet that I actually pick myself are apples. I should of course have an allotment, or a veg patch. My excuses for not having one are many: the uncertainty of how long I will live in my house (veg patch excuse), this city (allotment excuse), the lack of skill and experience (even my raspberry plant died) … I could go on. But really, the reason is time. It’s very difficult (not impossible) to be an active player in a competitive work environment, in a tough economic context and grow your own veg. And that’s why I understand people buying ready meals. And I also understand why calls for a four day working week [3] might do more as much improve our diets as a ‘fat tax’ because it would give us more time to grow and cook food.

The thing is the apples aren’t even mine. Not only because my house is rented, but also because the trunk is in the neighbour’s garden. Once my housemates and I have collected them from windfall, or stood on the ladder, or climbed up the tree though, they are quite literally: the fruits of our labour. Delicious, tart and juicy for eating and cooking, for making crumble and pie, for stewing and freezing, for chopping and grating and even… for mixing with chocolate and turning into a squidgy sweet, added-sugar-free chocolate brownie! [4]

For most people who pick fruit and vegetables in the intensive horticultural system, the fruits of their labour are not what they pick or the value of that, but a wage that is so low it keeps the producers in profit (just) and maintains a price that satisfies consumers with very modestly valued apples. I deduce that this means for my neighbours, it is cheaper (time-wise) and easier to buy apples from the shops than to pick the ones in the back garden. And it’s only because they don’t care about the tree that we get a free harvest. We just have to hope they don’t decide to chop it down.

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[1] Jenny Linford, 2018, The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour, Penguin. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/291/291455/the-missing-ingredient/9781846148972.html

[2] According to market research by Kantar. The full study is behind a paywall, this is an excerpt. https://pork.ahdb.org.uk/media/74830/convenience-is-key.pdf

[3] Now an active part of public debate and calls. See, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/11/four-day-working-week-tuc-proposals-workers-rights and, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-45750920

[4] For the brownie recipe try something like this: https://www.feastingonfruit.com/easy-vegan-fudge-brownies/ I usually search vegan chocolate apple brownie and make something based on the different advice given and the ingredients I have to hand.

Food Connections

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Last week the Bristol Food Connections festival explored “all that is GREAT about food in Bristol (and beyond)” [1]. This made me realise that what I am exploring are the separations in our global food system. While so much of food in Bristol is ‘GREAT’ there is still much work to do about what is NOT SO GREAT. In the global food system, the separations between those who produce and those who consume what is transported around the world are many: income, origin, lifestyle, language, history, opportunities, culture, diet, microbiome – you name it there are separations in the way we eat and live.

This weekend I co-facilitated an event, Philosophy Breakfast: The ethics of global food production, with Julian Baggini, philosopher and author of the book, Virtues of the table: How to eat and think, [2]. Julian focused our thoughts on ethics and justice, and I grounded us with a case study, on tomatoes produced in Morocco, based on my recent fieldwork. We were treated, literally, to food for thought, in the form of a breakfast bap and coffee from the Boston Tea Party as well as a full house of attendees ready and willing to reflect on their role in the food systems. I was determined that this group, who had been motivated enough to get up for a 10am Sunday start, also be given space to tell us what we should be considering in relation to the ethics of food. So, we invited each table to choose a breakfast food element to reflect upon, bread, coffee, tea, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms, as they slowly digested its nutrients and food dilemmas.

Framing the session Julian considered our role as consumers by drawing on the thoughts of some classical philosophers from Plato to Sen: we should not, he suggested, be afraid of always getting everything right, but we should at least do our best to avoid contributing to what we find clearly morally wrong. How to go about this? I asked our participants to think of questions which might help us reflect on each of the breakfast items to help us consider these dilemmas. Furthermore, perhaps we might have questions for others; for the supermarkets, for the governments, and for the companies involved. My favourite question from this savvy group was, for meat: “was it worth an animal dying for me to eat this?” something that connects to my blog on the great value of seeing meat as sacrifice: ‘L hawli‘.

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My talk related more to the question about coffee, “What labour standards (how bad would they be) would stop you buying coffee?”. What a question. International labour standards usually boil down to a mutual agreement that the countries involved in trade will apply their national labour laws. They may also be required to ensure that these national laws meet international standards, but what are these international standards? Since the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (ILO, 1998) [3], international labour law has been focused, or in practice narrowed, depending on your perspective, to just eight core conventions covering four areas (collective bargaining, forced labour, child labour, non-discrimination at work), out of a possible 189 conventions covering many other very important areas [4]. So this is a relatively weak starting point, which in most cases simply attempts to ensure already existing minimum standards (laws) are implemented.

What happens also, when national laws do not meet the needs of workers? Too often agricultural work is excluded from normal labour standards, or minimum wages are lower in this sector. This is not just the case in poorer countries. In the USA, the world’s richest state, many agricultural workers are exempted from minimum wage and overtime entitlements of the main national labour legislation, the Fair Labour Standards Act [5]. This is discrimination sanctioned by law.

Such discrimination between agriculture and other sectors is also the case in Morocco, where I carried out fieldwork. Whilst the legal minimum wage in other sectors is £8.29, the minimum day wage for agricultural workers is significantly lower at £5.37. OK, you may think, but life is cheaper there. Not that much cheaper. We can convert that minimum agricultural wage to a UK equivalent via the Purchasing Power Parity formula, (or PPP) this tells you what the equivalent wage would be in the UK. That equivalent of that minimum agricultural wage in a UK context with UK housing, food and other costs would be £13.51. This is not enough to live comfortably, barely enough to survive.

This is why then, the first findings chapter of my thesis is entitled “No Money”. If a major supply chain, feeding us year round with produce that we increasingly depend upon, rests on a starting point of an unreasonably low minimum wage, we cannot consider this a socially sustainable global food connection. And it is a connection. Although we are separated by distance, language, culture and long food chains, it was not difficult to find tomatoes just on our doorstep. Even last week when the ‘counter-season’ was officially over (as we now produce more in the UK so there is less market for non-EU producers) I could easily identify tomatoes in Bristol from a major company in business just outside of Agadir, Morocco (where my research is focused). I know workers from this company’s greenhouses and packhouses and spent months in daily conversations with them about what needs to change. They are calling for increases in wages and working conditions, better childcare and better social infrastructure. The separations then, are there to be bridged.

Transparency came up a lot on the morning of our event. How is there so much information about the attributes of food itself, and so little about those that produce it? We can only find out about food if actors involved in the sector are willing to be open (governments, retailers, employers). This showed at the Bristol Fruit Market, which I also visited as part of the Food Connections festival. The openness of the owners to discuss their business and show us around their distribution centre was in very clear contrast to the supermarket distribution centres which are shrouded in secrecy. Yet this is not the case at every stage of the process and it is only by asking questions, and showing that we care, that we can have any leverage at all to shift the harshest dynamics of global food systems.

Why are wages so low in the food sector? How can we revalue food? How can we keep alternative routes to market going (such as through wholesale)? How do we know if workers are treated fairly? What does that mean? How can we improve social and labour conditions in global production? These some of the questions that I am working on at the moment.

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Groups feed back from their discussions at the Philosophy Breakfast event 17th June 2018

[1] Bristol Food Connections Festival website, https://www.bristolfoodconnections.com/about-us/

[2] BAGGINI, J. 2014. The virtues of the table: How to eat and think, Granta Books.

[3] ILO 1998. ILO Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work. International Labour Conference. Geneva: International Labour Office.

[4] For a list of the 189 ILO conventions, see, http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:12000:7956775033045::::P12000_INSTRUMENT_SORT:4

[5] See, Guide to the Fair Labor Standards Act,  https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/hrg.htm#10

[6] This is known locally as the difference of the SMIG, the minimum legal industrial wage, and the SMAG, the minimum legal agricultural wage. The SMIG is set by the hour (13.46 Moroccan Dirhams). An 8-hour equivalent of the SMIG comes to the GBP of £8.29. This can then be compared to the minimum agricultural wage, set by the day at 69.73 Moroccan Dirhams, equivalent to £5.37 per day.

Watermelon work

Watermelon pieces

Did you eat any melon over Christmas? Or a strawberry? Have you seen a watermelon since the summer, maybe cut up in pieces in a boxed-up plastic ready-to-eat fruit salad? If so, that will help you relate to the dilemma for Spanish farmers and the workers they employ that I wrote about in an article called “Misconceiving ‘seasons’ in global food systems, the case of the EU Seasonal Workers Directive” published in the European Law Journal [1].

In this journal article, I essentially analyse a law, a European Law, but one that now governs the conditions under which seasonal workers from outside the EU can come to Europe to work in agriculture (and other ‘seasonal’ sectors) [2]. It also outlines their rights while they are here, making it both labour law and migration law [3]. This is brought together in an attempt to meet the needs across Europe for workers that pick the counter-seasonal crops such as strawberries, raspberries, melons and watermelons, as well as those summer vegetable crops that I have written about in the past.

A central theme in my work is about the disconnections of modern food production. But it is also about work. Labour, work, people, people who move, people who stay still. You can’t have workers without people. We are, and they are, one and the same. Yet law after law, country after country, policy after policy attempts to do just this by limiting the rights of workers when they come to host countries to work. The EU Seasonal Workers Directive is a recent version of this attempt to disconnect the rights and needs of people who migrate to work, from their status as workers. Although the UK played a large role in its negotiation, they ultimately opted out of its adoption, and then, as we know, opted out of the EU altogether. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the influence of this directive stops at the UK border. The workers that pick many of our out of season crops in countries such as Spain and Italy, are governed by it. Furthermore, the UK is looking for options post-Brexit for how to govern seasonal work by migrant workers and this could give an insightful suggestion of what that might look like. This blog then, brings out a few elements of the article, which looks at the directive from the lens of a case study in Southern Spain: where our watermelons come from.

The farmers that I interviewed in Southern Spain work within the law. They ensure that they produce to the highest health and safety regulations, that they are registered, and work with certified exporters. These exporters (sometimes called co-operatives because they began as farmer cooperatives) then do an extensive quality selection in which they throw away much of the fruit and vegetables which do not meet the standards that you, your mum or your Grandparents might want for your year-round desert of prepared fruit salad.

Due to the very low wages and hard working conditions, not many people want to work picking these fruit and vegetables. The labour market is therefore dominated by migrant workers who have fewer language and transferable skills to find better paid and easier work elsewhere. Most people have all the legal requirements to work. However, for various reasons, the most vulnerable do not. They may not been in the EU long enough to regularise their status, they may not have employers to support them in doing this, their papers may have been rejected, they may not have had the money or the contacts to get a visa, they may have escaped distressing situations, made arduous (planned or unplanned) journeys towards the EU, some may also be refugees. In any case, these individuals also suffer from the need to work in order to live, and are some of the most vulnerable in the labour market. Furthermore, farmers generally do not want to hire them because they risk a €10,000 minimum fine if they are caught employing workers who do not have legal permission to work. So what happens?

The European Union want to solve the seasonal need for fruit pickers by offering temporary visas for people to come for a few months at a time to European countries (where most of your strawberries, tomatoes and watermelons are produced). In theory this is a model of carrot and stick – the carrot, the incentive, for prospective workers in countries like Morocco or the Ukraine is the temporary visa. I will ignore in this short blog the contradictions of the idea of ‘circular’ migration although I’ve covered this in the article. In short, it is not as advantageous as it seems at first glance. The main ‘stick’ or disincentive is increased border control that has been happening in the same context as the development of this directive, and the increased marginalisation of undocumented migrant workers who are already within the European Union but who are not given any options under this new directive.

Although this may sound logical, the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, in fact, is created in a context of false divisions and it therefore creates several more problems. Firstly, as we have explored, seasonal agriculture, in a context of intensive production, follows the time periods of when you like to eat melon, as opposed to when melon (etc.) is naturally in season. That means more than a few months of the year. So farmers like workers who are already in the country, who they can hire in person and work with over a steady period of time, building daily working relationships with.

Under temporary work schemes such as the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, migrant workers have reduced rights, therefore facilitating the creation of a legally mandated second-class tiered labour force. Temporary workers are also highly vulnerable to falling outside of the terms of their visa. Such seasonal work visas link their visa permission to their employers, something that makes them highly dependent on them and vulnerable to abuse [4].

Finally, seasonal migration is simply a form of temporary migration, aimed at avoiding the creation of a long term ethnic community in the host country. Historically, wherever host countries have attempted to invite ‘guest workers’ yet avoid settlement of migrant workers, this has failed. So the EU here, is criticised as still wanting to import ‘labour’ and not ‘people’ [5].

Let’s return to the watermelons and the farmer who intends to play it by the book. Unfortunately, this famer’s ultimate buyer doesn’t care much for the rule book. What they care about is ensuring that you get your summer fruits, cheaply, regardless of the season and regardless of who picks it and how protected they are or not. So the farmer is placed into a very difficult position which seems to sum up the tensions between our year round demand for cheap food and the just-in-time immediacy and demands that this puts on the people that produce it. A small farmer in Southern Spain described the situation in this way:

Once they were going to come [the export cooperative], we were arguing about the watermelons, whether we should pick them or not and in the end they said to me; “alright, this afternoon we pick them” and I said, “this afternoon I don’t have any workers” and they said; “either we come and get them this afternoon or we don’t come”. So I said, “Well, come” and when they come to pick the watermelons, I need a lot of workers, four people, and so I say, “where am I going to find those people? I can’t get…” so I went to the garage in El Ejido and there were four Africans just there.
[cited in 1].

The ‘watermelon dilemma’ of this farmer therefore demonstrates the final reason why the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, and other similar laws ultimately do not answer the problem of seasonal work: much seasonal work does not require workers for three or five or nine months, but a couple of days. In small scale production, you could perhaps ask family to help, but not on this scale. In these ‘enclaves of production’ at the European border, where everything is orientated so that it can provide cheap food to Tescos, Waitrose or your local greengrocer, the most vulnerable workers will always be needed to take this work. If they need the scarce work they can get without papers, while this work exists, they will probably be ready to take it. Yet the EU regulators prefer to simply ignore these watermelon pickers. By not offering them a route to legality this work will also condemn them to ongoing poverty and precariousness. In the process of drafting the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, an option was proposed to allow such migrants to apply for a seasonal workers visa (which would be fitting as they are the real ‘seasonal’ workers), yet this was rejected, leaving the watermelon pickers in an ever more precarious situation, dependant on the ever more scarce and desperate farmers whose lack of profits push them to take the risk to hire the people in most need of work.

There are many problems with this directive. However, in my opinion, the biggest problem that it represents, is the disconnection. This is the disconnection between a society that is happy to eat cheap food but that does not want to accommodate the workers that produce it with the same rights as they enjoy. Should the UK come up with similar legislation in the upcoming years we should be very careful indeed to pay attention to the underlying assumptions and disconnections and their impacts on the people that might come to do seasonal (or un-seasonal) work and on those who are already here doing it. In the meantime, this directive is up for revision in 2019.

References

1. Medland L (2017) Misconceiving ‘seasons’ in global food systems: The case of the EU
Seasonal Workers Directive. European Law Journal, 23(3-4), pp.157-171.

2. European Union (2014) Directive 2014/36/EU on the conditions of entry and stay of third-country nationals for the purpose of employment as seasonal workers. Official Journal of the European Union L 94/375.

3. Fudge J and Olsson PH (2014) The EU Seasonal Workers Directive: When Immigration Controls Meet Labour Rights. European Journal of Migration and Law 16(4): 439-466.

4. Rijken C (2015) Legal Approaches to Combating the Exploitation of Third-Country National Seasonal Workers. International Journal of Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations 31(4): 431-451.

5. Zoeteweij-Turhan M.H (2017) The Seasonal Workers Directive: ‘… but some are more equal than others’. European Labour Law Journal, 8(1), pp.28-44.