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Contribution to House of Lords Call for Evidence on the Horticultural Sector

Welcoming the intention to establish a strategy for horticulture for England, Dr Hannah Pitt from the University of Cardiff and Dr Lydia Medland from the University of Bristol submitted a contribution to the House of Lords Call for Evidence in April 2023.

In the submission, available below, they highlighted the mis-match between public health priorities and horticultural production and supply. While the Government recommend all adults and children to consume at least five fruit and vegetable portions a day, the UK is not producing the crops to support this.

They also drew attention to challenges faced by all in the existing workforce. The submission builds on the work of the Good Work for Good Food international Forum.

Seasonal Worker visa route encounters problems

Radio 4 interview with Dr Lydia Medland

Following the Home Office revocation of the license of one of the seasonal agricultural worker recruitment operators, Dr Lydia Medland spoke to BBC farming today on 20th February 2023 about the scheme (listen here).

The UK Seasonal Worker visa route allows workers to come from around the world to work for up to six months. There are (or were) seven ‘operators’ of the scheme. These are licenced by the government as the recruiters and sponsors of the workers and are responsible for both enforcement of the scheme requirements, particularly ensuring that workers go home at the end of their stay, and for worker protection.

The UK has had some form of seasonal worker migration scheme since the end of World War II, but the current scheme dates from 2019, when following Brexit, EU workers no longer had access to the UK labour market, and UK fruit and vegetable growers and food producers had to look elsewhere to fill seasonal labour vacancies.

At the end of 2021, Dr Medland and Dr Scott (University of Gloucestershire) wrote a briefing outlining problems in the design of the scheme recommending major changes including a guaranteed minimum income, and for workers to have full access to public services.

In her interview with Radio 4 on 20th February Dr Medland spoke of her concerns that the same companies are responsible for ensuring workers’ return as are responsible for preventing their exploitation, saying that with ‘…outsourcing to for-profit businesses of this dual very important role, it isn’t surprising that something has gone wrong, I think the UK should go back to the drawing board on this scheme.’ Academic research has found (see for example Costello and Freedland, 2014) that where there is an interaction between protection of workers and enforcement of migration law, the enforcement role takes precedence. This leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation because they fear the same organisations and laws that are also meant to protect them.

Radio 4 put these comments to the Home Office who said, ‘The seasonal workers route has been running for three years and each year there have been improvements.’ However, the increasing scrutiny of the scheme by researchers, NGOs and journalists may be having some impact because on 23rd February 2023 Mark Spencer, the Farming Minister announced that Seasonal Workers coming to the UK on the scheme would be guaranteed 32 hours a week of work. This is in response to reports that workers are returning in debt because of there is less work than originally expected.

Whilst the Seasonal Workers visa route is no longer officially a ‘pilot’ it has only been renewed until the end of 2024 and it remains open to significant review. This policy is part of the focus of the ‘Working for 5 a day’ project because seasonal migrant workers are a vital part of the labour force that ensures consumers have access to fruit and vegetables. We will continue to follow this policy development and its changing context.

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.

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Good Work for Good Food

An international forum on jobs and skills in global food systems

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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.