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.

Proper Spanish Lunch

menu-del-diaThe proper Spanish lunch is no small or fast affair. It can’t be eaten with one hand, nor at your desk, and it isn’t accompanied by a cappuccino. The Proper Spanish Lunch is composed of two main courses, as much bread as you need, a glass of wine, and dessert. If you also need coffee, you can swap your dessert for one or pay the extra, but don’t assume it’ll come with chocolate sprinkles.

The Proper Spanish Lunch is a meal that symbolises an in-between space in my research, and, naturally, in my life. It is eaten with people who have helped me get from one place to another, and with whom I’ve enjoyed the time (moments and years) in between.

You don’t get anywhere without in-between spaces. If you go from a place you know to a place you absolutely don’t understand, you’re lost. But if you have a stepping stone, you can follow the familiar paths into the unknown space. That’s my route for weaving my way from understanding English and Spanish into French. It’s also the route I’ve used to reach Morocco: using what I understand about Spain to help me cross the Euro-African cultural divide. When you start from Spain, that distance is only 8 miles.

Lunch in Spain is quite literally called ‘la comida’ The Food. This is a very accurate description, because if you play the eating times game well, ‘la comida’ will be The Food of your day. Lunch is at about 2pm. For your first course (equal to the second in size) you have something like an enormous salad/lentils/soup, therefore meeting the RDA* for vitamins (hopefully). For your second course you have something of higher protein and prestige accompanied by even more vegetables, and even more bread. An example of this is the magnificent fish my friend effortlessly whipped up for us even just for a hungover Sunday lunch. Follow with dessert: either choose one of many different variations on the theme of ‘custard’, or alternatively a piece of fruit. Finally, coffee, to help you move again after The Food.

After Proper Spanish Lunch you are absolutely free until about 10pm because if you followed the instructions above, you won’t be hungry until then. Hence, if it’s a working day, far from being lazy, you can work until 6, 7 or 8pm, and then go out for a drink afterwards and then get home for 10pm to have dinner. Amazing. This only happens in the UK one day of the year, Christmas Day, when we indulge so much in the accompanying drinks we are good for nothing by the time it gets dark.

So what’s the relation with Morocco? Well this is where Northern Europe meets Northern Africa. Remove the alcohol and Proper Spanish Lunch looks less like Christmas Day in the UK and more like the salad or beans followed by Tagine in Morocco. More importantly, as in Morocco, time is made for eating in Spain. Someone has also made even more time: this is properly cooked food. I have yet to have a Proper Spanish Lunch with boil-in-the-bag rice, a pot noodle or boxed sandwiches.

Finally, the ‘in-between’ role of Spain, not only in my life, but also in my research, came into real relief this past week. It is extremely difficult for a Moroccan to get a UK visa, however, for some, it is not so difficult to get to Spain. Spain is part of the Schengen Area and so the close ties (linguistic, business, educational, family) mean that many Moroccans can get long term visas of several years to travel to countries like France and Spain with whom there have been very long term ties, and therefore the wider Schengen Area.

So although I had said goodbye to Morocco for the time-being following fieldwork, I was able to meet my Moroccan colleagues at a seminar last week in the very fitting, and in-between, Spanish context. So I’ve done a bad job of coming home from Morocco and staying put (the first week of term might have been easier without such opportunities to keep the doors open to research and maybe my sister should have confiscated my passport after all). Yet I can also see that Proper Spanish Lunches, and particularly this time with my Moroccan colleagues, are going to be absolutely key to keeping my research alive, and to keeping me going, perhaps until 10pm.

*Recommended Daily Allowance