Should we be reliant on cheap foreign labour to work on our farms, or is there a better way to feed ourselves?
Recently The Guardian ran an article by John Harris called “They say after Brexit there’ll be food rotting in the fields. It’s already started.” To summarise, John is saying Brexit has made the UK look an unfriendly place to our European neighbours and with the increasing financial fortunes of eastern European nations, farm workers are now choosing not to come to this country.
Nearly 50% of the workforce employed in the fruit and veg processing and preservation industry are from the EU but that figure leaps to 90% for the seasonal pickers. This year, a huge employment agent in the sector reports he’s 20% down on staff and foresees that crops will go spoiled and unpicked because of it. The knock-on effect of this is that some of the big growers, who run on tiny margins, may well ‘consider their investment’ and choose to set up elsewhere. Central and eastern Europe quite possibly.
You might wistfully imagine this will result in lots of British people becoming pickers in a golden echo if yester-year but no, British people don’t like to do that type of thing, apparently. Additionally the main growing areas of the country coincide with areas of low unemployment. So what will happen then? Britain relinquishes even more of its food sovereignty as domestic production decreases, while food miles and prices rocket.
Permaculture trainer and occasional agricultural worker Tomas Remiarz would like to dig a bit deeper. Over to Tomas:
While the above is a bleak enough scenario with a ring of truth, it misses some key factors that have led to Britain’s dependency on foreign agricultural labour. Any discussion about the future of British agriculture has to take into account issues of access to land, price rigging and working conditions. If we ignore them, the future may indeed be bleak.
The crisis of British agriculture is closely related to other crises in British society, and linked to the global crisis of the late 20th century capitalist model of industrialised agriculture. It’s as hooked on cheap labour and poor working conditions as it is on fertilisers and pesticides. They are all symptoms of a fundamentally flawed and bankrupt way of producing food. One way or another it will have to change. Without addressing the questions of access to land and food monopolies we have no chance of getting out of this mess. Brexit hasn’t created the crisis, it is only bringing it to a head.
Small farmers and growers in Britain and the world over often do the physically demanding and repetitive work involved in farming with great motivation and despite poor pay. They tend to put up with this because they have some amount of control over their workplace. Let me be clear: they should and need to be paid better. You can’t expect the same kind of tolerance from people without any stake in the production process and its results.
Pay people proper wages, give them decent working conditions and housing and they will do the work. You simply can’t pay for overpriced rural housing out of a wage packet that’s kept artificially low because the middlemen pocket most of the sales price. European workers can afford to put up with their appalling treatment as they have somewhere else to go to where they can recover. Again, let me be clear: agricultural workers should and need to be properly valued for the work they do, no matter where they come from.
Land distribution in Britain is more unequal that in any other European country, with aristocrats and corporations owning the vast majority of it. Food prices are rigged by big supermarkets, preventing labourers and small farmers getting fair wages for their work. The low margin producers get from supermarkets means they provide the absolute minimum they can get away with in terms of sanitation, accommodation etc. I don’t blame anyone for rejecting work in these conditions; in fact I don’t think we should import workers from abroad just because they will put up with them.
Three transitional demands that could help address the situation are:
- Abolish subsidies for simply owning land and introduce a land value tax to favour creation of smaller farm units
- Use the money generated to fund the transition to agroecological farming practices together with training and peer learning in these practices
- Create a solid and enforceable framework to secure decent living standards and working conditions for agricultural labourers, tenant farmers and small producers
These demands and more are embedded in the Recommendations for a Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy put together by the Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA). They were also voiced during the recent general election campaign in the Sustain Alliance’s Manifesto for a Better Food Britain. These are at least a step towards the public debate that would be needed to move towards a truly sustainable way of producing food in this country. To get there is not going to be easy and it’s not going to happen overnight, but unless that’s the general direction of travel and we get started soon we’re screwed. Getting informed and supporting initiatives like the LWA and Sustain would be a first step any of us can take.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Dave Darby September 5th, 2017
I think that John Harris has spectacularly missed the point on this one, and Tomas is absolutely right. We shouldn’t be bemoaning the fact that factory farms supplying supermarkets can’t hold on to their exploited cheap labour from abroad, we should be questioning the entire system.
Smallholders and small farmers – the ones who look after the land, don’t mistreat animals, don’t bring workers from other countries to do the work, don’t spray poisons, hold on to heirloom varieties, boost local economies etc. etc. – just can’t compete with huge industrial farms that have cheap overseas workers doing all the work.
And at the same time, Eastern European countries are losing all their young, entrepreneurial people who are leaving in droves, as their farms then become bigger, and they begin to destroy their smallholding base to become more like the West – i.e. fewer farmers, industrial scale, supermarkets, pesticides, more food miles etc. etc.
John says: ‘British people don’t like to do that type of thing, apparently’ – yes they do. The Ecological Land Co-op has a waiting list of people, ready with business plans, wanting to be smallholders. But British people don’t want to be exploited by large farmers, work in terrible conditions and be paid almost nothing, to make money for supermarkets and factory farms. No-one wants to do that. Romanian workers don’t ‘want’ to do it – they’re forced to do it.
There’s a lot we can all do already – i.e. support small farmers, by joining community-supported agriculture schemes, getting a veg box, going to farmers’ markets etc. (see here – http://www.lowimpact.org/category/gardening-allotments-smallholdings/ – for these things and more), and don’t listen to people who say that it’s too expensive, although they buy £150 trainers, have giant TV screens, fly on holiday, smoke etc. – it’s a question of priorities.
But ultimately, we need change at a higher level, that just doesn’t allow factory farms and supermarkets to destroy nature, local economies and the livelihoods of small farmers. The reports mentioned in the article are a good guide.
2John Harrison September 5th, 2017
I can’t help but wonder if the same arguments were raised about the abolition of slavery! How are we going to harvest the sugar cane?
The reliance on foreign labour is a disgrace although some of those certainly do get a reasonable level of pay, too many don’t. Our food is too cheap, giving no margin for primary producers but many consumers can’t afford a lot more as they struggle to pay ever higher housing costs.
I find the argument about big tellies and trainers very ‘middle class, look at the feckless poor’ to be honest. Sorry Dave, but I suspect you would think differently if you lived in Sunderland or lived for six months on an estate where the majority were on benefits. We’ve hard working people forced into using food banks – living off charity. Would you rather be homeless or hungry is not a choice.
I’m afraid it’s not just agriculture but the entire system that is broken now. Money concentrated into the rich and corporates and banks. Grants for farmers may not be a bad idea but who benefits the most? The big farmers who claim the most. Less than (I’m not sure if it’s 5 or 15 hectares) and you don’t even get counted as a farm.
3Dave Darby September 6th, 2017
John, agree with everything you say apart from the ‘feckless poor’ thing. I grew up in Dudley – well below Sunderland in the quality of life index – and go back regularly. There isn’t a home without a large-screen telly; all kids have computer games; more and more paved front gardens for a car or two. Most people fly on holiday (although to be fair, that’s become very cheap). It has one of the world’s biggest shopping centres, no-one would be seen dead without branded, corporate clothes. Hunger isn’t a problem, obesity is. True, many struggle, but corporate clutter is the last to go. But suggest a farmers’ market or organic food and it’s too expensive. I’m not blaming anyone. Corporate advertising has meant that social standing will fall without certain things. I had a conversation with a young guy on my brother’s estate who was fired up, and ready for revolutionary change. His friend laughed and said ‘ask him about his shirt’, at which point he became very embarrassed. However, his friend is now involved in various projects to help promote sustainable, non-corporate alternatives. He may not be successful, but he’s trying. I think change will be initiated by a tiny minority of people like him (and you), and the majority will follow if and when they see that it benefits them – and the way in will be different for different people. For some it may be healthier food and environment, for others it might be not having a boss, or safer communities.
4John Harrison September 6th, 2017
Youm from Dudley? ?
I know what you mean but it’s a favourite cry of the right wing “look at their trainers!” – Often the ‘luxuries’ are financed by doorstep lenders at interest rates beyond belief. I was fortunate, brought up in a nice area with parents who had some money but I’ve worked sink estates. One thing I really picked up on was a disconnect. My mother taught me to cook, nothing flash but enough to make a meal from raw. A lot of people have no knowledge of how to cook a meal or grow something. The basic life skills were absent. A social worker friend reckoned that hard drugs were all that prevented a revolution – but I digress from the points in the excellent article.
5Dave Darby September 6th, 2017
I am. Yep, bread (non-organic, from Tesco) and circuses (including drug of choice) = compliance. Doesn’t work for everybody though – and those are the people to watch out for.
6Andy Goldring October 13th, 2017
Nice article – thanks Tomas! Its also worth looking at the People’s Food Policy by LWA / Ecological Land Association / Permaculture Association / Global Justice Now and supported by over 120 organisations – its a really comprehensive and integrated look at what a genuinely sustainable and socially just food system could look like. Publishing it was the first step, now we want to build momentum, get more people engaged and actually turn the recommendations into policy. https://www.peoplesfoodpolicy.org/
7Trev_M October 13th, 2017
Dave, I’m supporting you in the argument, as another like you who’s walking their talk – however tricky. I spend pretty much my entire day doing diverse stuff directly related to my own path, more leisurely at the begining and end and pretty intensively in the middle. The reason I do this, rather than work more reasonable hours for someone else – or sacré bleu, claim benefits! – is that I enjoy working towards “self sufficiency”: conquering every challenge I find on the path, living with few (or old but reliable) consumer products, but DOING IT ON MY OWN TERMS and reaping the rewards of my own input. I see most around me on the work-for-others, buy-the-latest trip, constantly in their car or on an aeroplane somewhere else because where they are is not where they want to be, or that’s “what people do” (based on F*book etc) with relatively massive carbon footprints even though they claim to be “greenies”.
I live in an area that now seems to be based on “retirement” rather than post-industrial benefits-claiming, but I see the same despondency among my friends: many of them are essentially employed in low-wage service industries supporting the ill or retired who – if the cared-for had chosen – could be a lot fitter or more self sufficient if they hadn’t signed-up to the consumer model of life. At least that generation probably walked to school: how will it be when the current young generation reach middle age: chaffeured around until they are able to buy their own car, and graduating to a mobility scooter, stabilised by prescription drugs? I’m not far short of “retirement” age and my leisure is to bicycle when I need to and run round the woods and enjoy the trees and wildlife in the evening! And write about it for anyone that’s interested. But one thing I’ve found is that I can’t SELL the lifestyle. But I’m fascinated by your commitment to “marketting” it in the way you do. Good luck, and I’ll continue watching you.
8Dave Darby October 13th, 2017
I don’t think it needs much marketing actually, Trev. I think there’s a huge undercurrent of people who loathe the current system. I’ve had the same conversation over and over again – with bankers and builders – ‘I hate working for unpleasant people, doing unpleasant things for money to maintain a lifestyle I don’t even want. I’d prefer to have a few acres, build my own home and grow food, or at least to have a small business doing useful things, rather than corporate nonsense’. But it’s really, really difficult to escape once you’re in. We’ve never been in, and often we look on in amazement at people who are. I just want to make it easier for people to escape. It is possible, but difficult. The more people who do it, the easier it will become for others. Lowimpact is just about individual change. The Ecological Land Co-op is helping to take back the land (yes, very slowly, but it’s a start). There are more initiatives coming – to help people move their money out of the corporate sector, to help change the money system and to help change governance systems. I’ll blog about them here.
9tomzzpot December 18th, 2018
Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing ?