Should we be reliant on cheap foreign labour to work on our farms, or is there a better way to feed ourselves?

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Romanian workers harvest the grape crop in an English vineyard in Sussex.

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.

A fruit picker from eastern Europe at a strawberry farm in Kent. Taken by Graham Turner for the Guardian

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:

Tomas Remiarz

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.

Food production in Britain: we can’t have our cake and eat it

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.

Landworkers’ Alliance campaigning for more support for small scale producers

Three transitional demands that could help address the situation are:

  1. Abolish subsidies for simply owning land and introduce a land value tax to favour creation of smaller farm units
  2. Use the money generated to fund the transition to agroecological farming practices together with training and peer learning in these practices
  3. 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.