Latest

Seasonal migrant guestworkers get a raw deal in UK government scheme up for renewal in 2022

The following article was authored by Dr Lydia Medland of the University of Bristol and Dr Sam Scott of the University of Gloucestershire and first published by the Countryside and Community Research Institute.

The threat of imminent food shortages are forcing a major rethink of post-Brexit UK immigration policy. An expansion in the UK’s temporary migrant visa programme was rushed through in September in an effort to restore order at petrol stations, get meat processing plants back at full capacity, and ensure supermarket shelves are fully stocked for Christmas. This was widely publicised in the news, but people may be less aware that the Government scheme for all seasonal agricultural workers, from the EU and beyond, is due to end in December. What eventually replaces the ‘Seasonal Worker Pilot’ will have lasting repercussions.

Brexit and the return of the migrant guestworker

It has been estimated that 98% of seasonal workers in the UK food industry come from elsewhere in Europe. Despite a recent softening in attitudes of local UK workers towards the sector, there is reason to believe that the majority of workers in British horticulture will continue to come from abroad (principally Eastern Europe). Prior to Brexit, and under EU Freedom of Movement, these workers were able to enter the UK with their passports or ID cards and move between jobs according to their needs, the demands for their labour, and how satisfied they were with the working conditions. Brexit signalled the end of free movement and, for EU migrants now wanting to work in the UK, the options open to them are significantly more constrained than in the past. The Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme underlines this point and marks a transition to a system where the rights of UK-based workers are greater than the rights of low-wage migrant ‘guests’. Under the pilot scheme, workers may enter the UK for up to six months, are restricted to work in edible horticulture, and are placed with an employer by one of four intermediaries, which makes movement between workplaces difficult. The SWP was set up in 2019 and whilst initially capped at 2,500 workers currently (in 2021) accommodates up to 30,000 workers per annum.

Geographical Openness but Social Closure

The move away from freedom of movement towards guestworker migration, driven by Brexit, has brought with it more openness geographically in the sense that the UK employers can now look further for low-wage harvest workers. However, with this geographical openness has come a social closure: where workers are denied rights and entitlements, and kept at arm’s length in a state of permanent temporariness. This puts seasonal migrant workers at significant risk of poverty and exploitation. The social closure we have seen, and are likely to see, is far from ideal and indicates a problematic trend towards the normalisation of guestworker migration policies. Globally, guestworker schemes like the Seasonal Workers Pilot, effectively mean that home-grown workers have greater rights and freedoms than migrant ‘guests’, even when doing the same job. The UK’s new temporary migrants therefore occupy a far more precarious position in the labour market than EU migrants did under Freedom of Movement.

Time to Listen to the Workers

As freedom of movement ended and as guestworker visas emerged in their place, we found no evidence that workers’ views informed this shift or that workers’ experiences on the seasonal pilot were taken into account when deciding to extend and expand the scheme for 2020 and 2021. Listening to workers and worker representatives, however, one finds evidence of flaws in the guestworker model. For example, a 2021 report by FLEX and Fife Migrants Forum (FMF) found significant problems in the seasonal workers pilot with migrants seen to be at increased risk of trafficking for forced labour. As one of just four core labour standards agreed internationally, workers should also have access to representation. A lack of representation via trade unions or other forms of freedom of association is even more notable considering current safeguarding arrangements. Under the current Pilot system, the same operators are responsible for workers’ welfare and immigration enforcement. Research from around the world has found that where labour protections are linked to immigration control, immigration control undermines labour rights and migrant workers are left at high risks of abuse.

A New Year’s Resolution?

In late 2020, the SWP was extended and expanded at the very last minute without workers’ insights. We are hoping that, for 2022, a more considered and transparent policy decision emerges, underpinned by workers’ views and experiences, and producing an overall more equal and less exploitative policy resolution. Whatever one thinks of the principle of guestworker migration, there are clearly improvements that can be made to this increasingly popular migration and employment policy.

Five key adjustments stand out that are pertinent to the UK SWP, and beyond:

  • Most immediately, all low-wage guestworker schemes should make it possible not only in theory but also in practice to change employers. At present, there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that seasonal workers, if they are unhappy at a workplace, can move elsewhere. The issue of being tied to an employer is further exacerbated if one considers that most seasonal workers will also live onsite, often in relatively remote rural areas.
  • Secondly, a minimum guaranteed income should be available to seasonal workers so that whatever the weather, and however consumer demand varies, workers will know that leaving friends and family back home as they move temporarily to work abroad is financially worthwhile.
  • Third, for those workers who return season after season there should be a pathway to permanent residency, a pathway that may become accessible after say five years. Having regularly contributed to a country guestworkers should eventually be welcomed to settle permanently.
  • To avoid creating a two-tier system of national and migrant workers, workers committing to contribute to a nation’s economy should get full access to the public services that they may need during their time in the UK such as access to the NHS and other public funds.
  • Finally, when devising labour migration and employment policy affecting precarious workers workers’ experiences should be taken into account by governments alongside the requirements of business.  

In the absence of systems of free movement, guestworker schemes have emerged globally to supply businesses with low-wage labour and this is especially true in horticulture. In the UK, and beyond, a new year’s resolution is now necessary if we are to address migrant exploitation through this guestworker model and give hard-working migrants the reception they deserve.

Dr Lydia Medland is currently looking for respondents for her ‘Working for five a day’ research project. If you are working in the UK fruit and vegetable sector (as a grower or farm worker) you can complete the survey here: https://spais.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/5-a-day

Survey opens for growers and workers who produce fruit and vegetables

Are you a grower or fruit and vegetable worker? Complete the survey here: Working for ‘five a day’ (onlinesurveys.ac.uk)

Today the ‘working for 5 a day’ research survey is launched. The survey differs from previous research because it takes an interest in all those working in fruit and vegetable production. Avoiding an ‘us and them’ approach, the survey is open to growers and farmworkers, British and non-British workers, those based across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and conventional and organic producers of all scales of production. 

Growers, workers, seasonal migrant workers and others in the sector are vital for the UK’s food system. If we are to sustain a resilient food and farming sector able to provide healthy food for the population, we need to take note of the experience of those in the sector. This is the purpose of the survey, which in subsequent years will be followed up by in-person qualitative research.

The research comes at a time when awareness about the need to reduce carbon emissions is high, as the UK hosts COP26 in Glasgow this year. Reducing food miles and protecting UK production is one way to do this. This is particularly the case for types of fruit and vegetable that can easily be grown in the UK such as apples and pears, berries and other soft fruit such as plums, as well as a very wide range of vegetables.

The survey is now open in English, takes only about 15 minutes to complete, and gives those who enter the opportunity to enter a prize draw for Love2Shop vouchers which can be used in many high street shops.

Translations are also available in two languages which are common among seasonal agricultural workers; Romanian and Ukrainian. These languages have been chosen in order to open accessibility to workers who come from the selected countries both within the European Union (Romania) and from beyond its borders (Ukraine). Other horticultural workers from all countries are also welcome to participate in the English version.

All those who work in growing, picking, packing, preparing or in some other way supporting fruit and vegetable production are invited to complete the survey, please access it here: https://spais.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/5-a-day

Open Letter to UN Agencies

Leading researchers have sent a letter to UN agencies dealing with issues related to work in the food system to call for a new positive vision for the future of work in this sector.

The letter calls for a positive vision for food work and outlines nine principles for such a vision (below). The letter comes at a time when a lot of focus is given to agri-tech innovations while the everyday challenges faced by food and farm workers and growers are often overlooked. The vision outlined in the principles calls for technology to be used where it assists workers. The example given in the letter is of table top strawberry picking which avoids workers needing to stoop down.

This is also a moment in which the role of food workers is being re-considered in the wake of them being recognised as essential workers during the COVID 19 pandemic. The letter calls for all food work to be recognised as skilled and valuable and for it to therefore be well paid and personally fulfilling for workers. The moment to address this call to UN agencies is ripe because 2021 has been declared the International Year of Fruit and Vegetables by the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The twenty-five original signatories of the letter include academics who have been researching in this area for decades such as Professor Julie Guthman, and campaigner Vicki Hird from FARM Campaign, Sustain. The letter was collaboratively written by the co-organisers of an event in May 2021, Dr Hannah Pitt, Dr Lydia Medland, Susanna Klassen and Dr Poppy Nicol and the participants of the event were all invited to edit a draft of the letter and principles prior to it being finalised.

To sign and support the open letter and this initiative please follow this link.

To download a PDF copy of the letter, click here.

Good Work for Good Food

An international forum on jobs and skills in global food systems

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Workers-and-Leeks.jpg
Workers harvesting leeks in the UK. Photo credit: Dr Hannah Pitt

25 May 2021 – Online, in three time zones (see the event booking page for details). Associated with the Sustainable Places Institute, Cardiff.

Good Food is healthy, culturally appropriate, accessible for all and produced in ways which are ecologically sustainable and socially just. Good Food Work means decent jobs producing, processing and distributing food which are fairly rewarded and personally rewarding. It means jobs and training accessible to all, in safety and with dignity.

This Forum provided a space for researchers to explore what Good Food Work is and can be. We considered how research could contribute to making food work better. The event was designed to foster interactive discussion and find shared priorities for future action. Speakers from three continents and time zones provided starting points for discussion and to help define priorities.

2021 is the International Year of Fruit and Vegetables so the programme was designed to focus on jobs and work for horticultural production. Researchers focused on other types of food work are also welcome. Key discussions focused on:

Developing a vision for Good Food Work
Understanding food work in the context of the global food system
Considering examples from Australia, New Zealand and Scotland
Unpicking tensions in labour and migration regulations and how they affect labour markets
The prospect of agri-robotics and what this means for existing workers.

The speakers were:

Dr Joanna Howe, Associate Professor in Law at the University of Adelaide and a member of the Australian Government’s Ministerial Council on Skilled Migration.
Dr Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, Associate Professor, Food Studies at Syracuse University, researching the interactions between food and racial justice, labor movements, and transnational environmental and agricultural policy.
Dr Lucila Granada, CEO of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), a research and policy organisation dedicated to end labour exploitation.
Professor Julie Guthman, Geographer and Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she conducts research on the conditions of possibility for food system transformation in the US.

Attendees included experts in the area from many different fields and produced a rich international reflection. The event was associated with the project ‘Knowing to Grow’ which is part-funded by Cardiff University and the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government. It was also supported by the British Academy through collaboration with the project, ‘Working for ‘five a day’: Risk and resilience in the changing food system,’ led by Dr Lydia Medland.

The organising committee are currently working on an academic paper that reflects on the conference and presents the vision that emerged from it. They are also drafting a shorter collaborative statement that will be open to edit to all those who attended the conference.

Organising team: Dr Hannah Pitt, Cardiff University, UK; Dr Poppy Nicol, Cardiff University, UK; Dr Lydia Medland, University of Bristol, UK; Susanna Klassen, University of British Columbia Canada.