Debate concerning Britain's access to the single market and, more specifically, who will pick our fruit and vegetables if the passage of migrant workers is cut off, has stepped up a notch as plans to leave Brexit fast approach. Although it looks likely that a permit scheme will be put in place allowing workers from the EU to continue this long-standing pattern of employment, one recurring argument that has come to the fore is that the use of migrant labour in the UK should end to prevent further exploitation. The label of seasonal migrant work has become synonymous with that of exploitation and, for some, slavery.
But stopping migrant labour in our own farming industry will not necessarily clean our hands of worker exploitation nor our conscience of human rights abuses. It may even trigger an increase, by encouraging the trafficking of illegal immigrants to the UK, or importing produce from countries with similar or worse human rights records in this industry than our own.
Exploitation of migrant workers performing seasonal farm work in the UK has been occurring since itinerant Irish travellers began travelling the length and breadth of the country seeking harvest work in the 14th century. This continued to varying extents through the 18th and 19th centuries. Sadly, due to a lack of regulation, limited union powers, and increasingly squeezed margins in farming, combined with rogue gangmasters, criminal gangs and a minority of land managers, incidences of worker exploitation are still reported today. Poor housing, long hours and on occasion, slave-like conditions greet some workers who come here, both legally and illegally, seeking to improve the economic situation for themselves and their families.
Denying migrants permission to work in the UK is unlikely to deter them from coming here for jobs, or stop employers using them. But without the accompanying employment rights and regulatory bodies that currently exist for workers employed here legally, there exists a greater risk of worker exploitation in the UK if farms lose this major source of labour. Undocumented workers already exist here in their thousands and they are vulnerable to 'exploitation in its most heinous forms'. The reality is that without legal access, the dark underbelly of industrial agriculture where rogue employers reside might quickly fill with illegal immigrants having no worker rights, making them far more susceptible to exploitation.
Are Our Neighbours Any Better?
Theoretically, if UK businesses could no longer source labour from Europe or beyond, and the trend for British citizens avoiding seasonal labour continued, an increasing reliance upon imports would be the natural next step for the country. But risks for worker exploitation would not simply disappear if we sourced our produce from elsewhere. They would simply be transferred to the countries of import origin.
Currently, we already import 40% of all of our fresh vegetables from Spain, a country whose seasonal worker rights have come under the spotlight a number of times in the recent past. A film released in 2011 described some of Spain's migrant salad pickers from Africa as 'modern day slaves', causing a backlash from the country's horticultural industry defending themselves against such claims. More recently, Romanian pickers were discovered living in deplorable conditions experiencing threats if they tried to leave their allocated living or working space. Despite Spain's strong labour laws, because of the difficulty in monitoring illegal immigrants attracted to sectors where low-skilled employment is available, such as intensive agriculture and horticulture, both African and Eastern European workers are at risk.
Similar conditions are described in a report published by The Netherlands in 2014, the other top country of vegetable importation to the UK. Interviewed migrants talk of being controlled and beaten by their employers, especially in the strawberry and asparagus sectors, whilst other nations providing our produce, including France, Italy and Germany, all have some history of worker exploitation. In 2015 we imported 4% of our vegetables from Poland, where, in the same year, Ukrainian children were discovered working on farms.
And Countries Further Afield?
Recent reports suggest that up to 40% of UK retailers are now considering sourcing their fruit and vegetables from Africa.
Currently over 9% of our fruit is imported from South Africa, a country known for human rights abuses and where farm workers have been described as among the most vulnerable people in South African society. With the same problems of long, gruelling hours and illegal exposure to pesticides, they frequently have no access to toilets or drinking water, housing is often uninhabitable and their worker rights are regularly ignored. A more recent report states that the scope for exploitation remains high in South Africa. And Kenya, another country ripe for exportation of fruit and vegetables to Britain, still regularly employs child labour.
It is difficult to find any country without some recent history of worker exploitation. In fact, the International Labour Organisation recently estimated that profits accrued from forced labour in agriculture alone amount to approximately $9 billion annually.
The Exception Rather Than the Rule
Of course for most countries, worker exploitation is the exception rather than the norm. People are working around the world to find ways to keep workers safe, usually through a combination or regulatory bodies and worker rights, although regulation and enforcement can vary significantly between countries.
In the UK, seasonal farm employees are currently protected by the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, the Gangmaster Licencing Authority, introduced following the Morecombe Bay cockle disaster, and full EU working rights. Whilst The Ethical Trading Initiative seeks to protect workers on a global scale. British supermarkets also claim rigorous ethical auditing of their suppliers. But despite all of these, unfortunately some still manage to slip through the net.
Migrants will continue to enter the UK as long as conditions at home are poor enough for it to be worth the risk. Rather than argue that seasonal work should no longer be performed by migrant workers, a system should be put in place, affording those workers equal rights and wages that are rigorously enforced, with harsher punishment to those who break the law, and an increase in training for retailers responsible for imports. Let us lead by example, and do away with the force.