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 triple 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.

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.

Flowerland

Tulips in window

Shall we have a happy story, or a miserable one? Happy, I hear you cry!!

OK, well my work is about people who work with nature, and how that is organised. The people involved are often those who have moved to work, or migrants. The nature I’m talking about usually becomes some form of food. But not in this case, because I am in Holland: land of flowers.

Although flowers are not food, they fall bang, smack in the middle of the narrower category of supply chain products that I’m getting nosy about: horticulture. That’s fruit, veg, medicinal plants and cut flowers, which like strawberries or tomatoes can be grown outside in the warm, or inside in the hothouse. The earliest seasonal work for horticultural workers in the UK for example, are in the daffodil fields of Cornwall. So although you can’t eat (most) flowers, the process of producing them is quite similar.

And so to our story. Here in Holland there are flowers everywhere. People buy flowers, give flowers, have flowers in their nicely furnished houses and in their quiet public spaces. Although I came to be on holiday, I’ve been doing a bit of work on the side. Like the opposite of going to a conference and taking an extra day to go to the beach, in my extra couple of days I had a few meetings. In one of these meetings I met Rashid.*

Rashid prepares flowers for export. He’s Moroccan, but also speaks English, French and Dutch as well as Arabic (classical and colloquial) and a version of Tamazight (Berber). So we were able to have a coffee and chat slowly, and in a mixture of those vocabularies (I’ll be honest, mostly in English). At some points the sugar sachet also had to be held upright and pretend to be a flower stalk as he explained to me how the flowers are potted, spread out, prepared, picked and plasticked for purchase.

So Rashid is one of the people who several decades ago, responded to a European short term need for ‘seasonal’ workers. He came on a three-month visa to pick grapes in France. That was in 1974. Since then the work has never dried up. Rashid came to Holland, which he said is ‘flowerland’. Thanks to an authorisation programme pretty soon after the move, Rashid was lucky, he said, and didn’t have to go through the sometimes decades-long process of applying for residency whilst existing on minimum, or lower than minimum wage.

This didn’t mean that he was living in luxury. For the first ten years of his time in Europe, Rashid lived in a room that the manager made him inside the ‘firm’. I’m not sure if that means a concrete room next to a greenhouse as I’ve seen elsewhere, or whether it means a room in a factory. What’s clear is that it isn’t something that would give you much space or any autonomy whatsoever from your boss, or your beckoning flower crop.

This is a happy story though, because the ten years ended and Rashid not only was able to return home and get married but also to settle in Holland with his family, and even stay with the company for longer than the boss. He kept his place as flower-packer, picker and organiser when the owners changed their make-up. He was also a member of the union in the company that had been going since he started.

Last year Rashid celebrated his 40th year with the firm, he showed me a photo in which he was presented with an enormous bunch of flowers, by the flower firm.  He has just two years before retirement which he seemed happy with. Will someone replace him when he goes? Possibly someone on a ‘seasonal contract’, which is limited to just two months here. That seems strange when the flowers are grown all year. Or maybe he won’t be replaced at all. The company now has a machine which plants the flowers directly into the trays, replacing 8 people with two.

So will there be more happy stories like Rachid’s? Told with smiles and reminiscence? Flowers are cheap at the moment in the Netherlands. Exports are low, the cash-strapped British with a weak pound are one reason for that, they want less flower heads and more greenery. And they often prefer the flowers from further away (perhaps Kenyan or Peruvian roses) rather than the colourful but well-known tulips.

Perhaps we should turn back to food then to see where the jobs are then, after all we can’t stop eating. But I won’t tell you about the worker I met from a slaughterhouse for chicken, because he works 15 hours a day, and you wanted a happy story.

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*The name was changed