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.

Food Connections


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.

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

[1] Bristol Food Connections Festival website,

[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,

[5] See, Guide to the Fair Labor Standards Act,

[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.