Farmers are used to looking into the future. Their livelihoods depend on taking a decent guess about everything from the weather to market forces. But a recent survey reveals that a new level of uncertainty looms on the horizon for post-Brexit farming in Britain.
Many in the survey said they were experiencing increased difficulty in recruiting seasonal workers since the EU referendum. Some suggested these labour shortages could result in a decrease in domestic food production followed by inflated prices of some produce caused by a total reliance on imports.
These shortages are not the result of any enforced changes in legislation, as Brexit negotiations have yet to be completed. This means that even if something like the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) (which enabled a set quota of Eastern European workers to come and work on labour-short farms) is reintroduced, the industry might still be in hot water.
A lack of seasonal labour has long been an issue for British agriculture. Farms have sought workers from further afield as far back as the 14th century, when the industry relied on itinerant workers from Ireland. And while some British workers engaged in seasonal labour up until the end of the 20th century, their desire to do so appears to have waned dramatically – hence the current reliance on migrant workers.
Other reports of post-EU referendum labour shortages are indicative of things to come, as fewer migrant workers want to work in the UK. This has been attributed in part to the expectation of an unwelcome reception in Britain due to possible racism and xenophobia, as well as the economic impact of the fall in value of the pound.
To combat this the former environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, suggested a return to land work for British youths, an idea met with derision by many. A parliamentary report also examined labour constraints in farming and suggested a long-term agenda of returning seasonal farm work to native British workers.
But the truth is, British people are highly unlikely to fill any positions left by migrant workers. It isn’t as simple as there being sufficient labour available in the UK to perform the work. The situation is far more complex.
The entire working culture of the UK has transformed since British workers last filled seasonal farm work jobs to any significant extent. Rural communities have been transformed due to the “drift from the land” of locals, and people from cities moving to the country or buying second homes, pricing potential farm workers out of the local housing market.
As a result, physically able unemployed people are now less likely to live anywhere near the farms requiring workers. Transport systems in rural areas are limited, and basic, temporary housing is unlikely to attract people away from comfortable, permanent housing situated close to friends and family.
The current benefits system also deters the unemployed from engaging in any kind of seasonal work due to the inflexibility of signing on and off. Add this to the inconsistency of work availability itself, and there is little wonder why no compulsion exists to pick fruit.
The conditions of seasonal work – low pay, physically demanding, long and unsociable hours – do not help. They are far from the expectations of the typical British worker, who is now culturally tuned to a 40-hour Monday to Friday schedule. There is also a greater desire for career progression, which is unlikely to occur in the world of fruit picking. These expectations contrast starkly with how farmers perceive the work ethic of Eastern Europeans. It is from this gap that the “lazy” label has grown and been perpetuated by farmers and the media towards British workers.
But even if conditions and incentives of picking fruit and veg were improved, British workers would still be unlikely to perform it because of how this kind of work is perceived. Among other things, the task has become negatively associated with migrant workers and slave labour. Farmers have repeatedly tried to employ locals, with a drastically low rate of return, telling stories of few turning up for interviews and even fewer returning after just several days of work.
And while some gangmasters, who find and provide workers at very low rates, and land managers are guilty to some extent for embedding the cheap-labour cycle of migrant work within the industry, farmers have little power over price setting against the whim of supermarket control. This cost squeeze leaves many farmers with their hands tied in terms of increasing worker pay – the effect of which would be higher prices for the consumer (with whom some of the responsibility lies).
Without enormous adjustments to the benefits system, rural social housing, pay and conditions, the underlying culture and ideology surrounding seasonal farm labour, and transformations in consumer buying habits, a future without migrant workers does not look bright.
Mechanisation might one day be the answer, but due to the fragility of soft fruits, that is not yet feasible. Instead, without a quick solution, it is quite possible that Britain’s fruit farms are destined to follow the same sorry path already paved by dairy, where lack of profitability and debt has caused mass closure.
Caroline Nye, PhD Candidate, University of Exeter