As Britain tiptoes cautiously towards leaving the European Union, there is concern about the impact of Brexit on the farming industry if free movement of Europeans is restricted as part of the negotiations. A whopping 90% of British fruit, salads and vegetables are currently picked and packed by overseas workers.
Yet, Britain’s reliance on migrants to do seasonal agricultural labour is not a recent phenomenon and it’s helpful to look at the history of how British workers turned away from this kind of work to understand the current predicament.
As far back as the 14th century, itinerant Irish migrants were known to travel throughout England and Scotland in search of employment. This became more prevalent by the end of the 18th century when groups such as the “spalpeens” and “tattie howkers”, large travelling gangs of Irish men, women and children, would help bring in the annual harvest. Such migration, not only from Ireland, but also from the Welsh hill counties and Scotland, coupled with itinerant English labourers, was essential to meet the labour demands that the resident workforce alone could not.
There were a number of reasons for this shortage of labour. From the end of the 18th century until the mid-19th century, labour requirements in agriculture were increasing, due to more labour-intensive crops, such as turnips and potatoes, and the adoption of a new crop rotation system. At the same time, the number of full-time farm workers was shrinking, as they were either pulled towards jobs created by industrialisation, or pushed out by mechanisation. On top of this, groups who could have previously been relied upon to help out at harvest time, such as those working in rural textile industries, began to move away from rural areas towards factory work in towns.
Child labour and gangs
Prior to the introduction of the Gangs Act in 1867, a large proportion of those performing seasonal work were women and children who provided cheap labour to both gang masters – a term still used today for individuals who organise and employ groups of workers for casual work on agricultural land – and farmers. This new law forbade children under the age of eight from working the land, after the 1860s witnessed a rise in public concern over the exploitative nature of “ganging”. A series of new education laws soon followed, making school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of five and 12, drying up a significant source of seasonal labour. As more women began to move into the service sector towards the end of the 19th century, there was also a decline in the supply of female agricultural labourers
But numbers of workers needed for harvesting remained high, especially following the Irish famine in the mid-19th century, which saw migrant numbers contract significantly. Some of that work, especially hop-picking, was carried out by townspeople, working class families often coming from London or the Black Country for their summer holidays. Many of these people continued to work alongside soldiers, prisoners of war or the Women’s Land Army during both world wars. In the early 20th century, agricultural gangs also employed British people, shipping them from Yorkshire to the East Midlands, for example. But gradually these workers became less willing to travel so far.
Post-war reliance on migrant workers grows
In response to labour shortages following World War II, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was introduced in 1945, allowing foreign nationals to temporarily reside in the UK in order to harvest fruit and vegetables. The bulk of SAWS workers were Eastern European or from the former Soviet Union. Although initial quotas were low, farms quickly began to rely on these workers, causing quotas to steadily increase to 21,250 in 2009. In 2013, the scheme was scrapped due to the increasing availability of workers from within the EU.
Despite this, it was only after the 1990s that British agriculture became heavily dependent upon international migrant workers. This was sparked by power becoming more concentrated among a small number of large corporate retailers. This meant that the bargaining power of farmers became greatly reduced, resulting in fast declining margins.
This power shift largely transformed agriculture as an industry, rapidly moving away from farming as a “culture” to a more intensive industry. Where technology has not stepped in, many farms have had to extract greater efficiency from their workers, at a lower cost, just to survive. This has resulted in a move away from the more paternalistic role of farmers to their workers, to one that is more distant and bureaucratic, further dissuading locals from wanting to do the work.
Back to the land?
Positions left empty if EU migration is restricted following Brexit could theoretically present a solution to high unemployment rates in the UK. But the fact is that many British people simply do not want to carry out seasonal labour because incentives for doing so are very low. Changes in the composition of rural populations mean that areas of high unemployment are often located at significant distances from the farms offering work. Seasonal jobs are also known to be low-paid, hard work, with long hours, and are often associated with unfavourable conditions and diminished social status. Domestic residents prefer permanent employment or complete withdrawal from the labour market onto the social security system.
Migrant workers are less likely to perceive the work as “dead end” and rather see it as a temporary step allowing them to earn an income that has more worth in their home country.
Schemes to encourage British workers back to the land have largely failed. Where they have tried, some farmers state that after several days of work, many do not return. But question marks hang over rhetoric arguing that Brits are too lazy, unavailable, or incapable of doing the work, or that they have an inferior work ethic to overseas workers.
The use of technology so far has proved challenging in the harvest of fragile soft fruits and vegetables, but it is likely that the future will see a gradual move towards the use of robots. Until then, unless food prices change or new systems emerge encouraging domestic workers to pick our fruit, British farms are likely to remain highly dependent on overseas workers.