In Britain, Seasonal Farm Laborers Toil for Subminimum-Wage Piece Rates

Since the end of free movement within the EU, Britain's farms have relied on seasonal migrants allowed into the country for just a few months at a time. Denied almost any possibility to change jobs, their situation shows how bosses can use visa rules to blackmail a pliant workforce into swallowing the most degrading conditions.

Migrant workers from Romania harvest daffodils on Taylors Bulbs Farm near Holbeach in eastern England. (Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images)

Last spring, the pandemic caught European farming businesses and governments unprepared. As travel restrictions were hurriedly introduced, EU bureaucrats understood that seasonal migrant laborers were indeed “essential workers” — notwithstanding their low pay and exploitative conditions. Emergency measures were taken to secure the harvest and food supply, with migrant-regularization measures and ad hoc visa extensions that would have been inconceivable in “normal” times.

While this impromptu legislation partially weathered the storm, there were still shortages. Meanwhile, employers’ disregard for COVID-19 precautions — coupled with absent enforcement capacities — itself spread the virus. German farms and meat processing plants became infection hotspots, with similar outbreaks among crop pickers in Herefordshire and Tayside (Britain), Lleida and Murcia (Spain), Mondragone and Reggio Calabria (Italy), and elsewhere. Nonetheless, 2020 ended with triumphant rhetoric from European institutions, celebrating both the rapid development of vaccines and increased preparedness for a forthcoming harvesting season.

In October, Europe’s Council of Ministers recognized seasonal workers’ plight. Having welcomed the Commission’s July 2020 guidelines on fighting the abusive practices faced by migrant workers, the Council urged EU member states to enhance the protection of laborers compelled to travel across the continent each year. And more work was expected for them.

In December, Eurozone investors’ confidence index Sentix hit its highest level since the pandemic began, forecasting the resumption of “normal life” this spring. Less than two months later the CEO of the world’s third-largest brewer Carlsberg prophesied not just the “return to normality” but to the “roaring ’20s,” with bars, restaurants, and hotels expected to host swathes of customers.

Fast forward to this year’s harvesting season and these prognoses seem far-fetched. The protracted and uneven rollout of the EU vaccination program leaves many governments battling a third wave of infections. This surge once again exacerbates the risk of crop losses and adds to the costs agribusinesses have to spend on extra transport, keeping workers socially distanced and buying protective gear. Meanwhile thousands of new COVID-19 cases have been reported in key recruitment countries not only inside the EU (Bulgaria and Romania) but also in neighboring states (Ukraine).

With looming uncertainty as to whether the necessary numbers of workers will be available, the sense of déjà vu is engulfing several European governments. As in 2020, extraordinary measures are being taken to quench agro-capital’s thirst for its migrant workforce.

In Germany, where the demand for seasonal workers in agriculture is estimated to reach around three hundred fifty thousand this year, the ministries of interior and agriculture heeded the Farmers’ Association’s warnings that wastage and grocery shortages would follow if crops such as asparagus, cabbage, and fruit went unharvested. Despite strict border restrictions imposed on March 25, the ministries outlined a bespoke recruitment and travel regime for farmers and horticulturalists. The move follows an earlier announcement to increase tenfold the quota for seasonal workers from a third country, Georgia.

In Spain, the six-month extended lockdown expired on May 9. But in Andalusia’s Huelva province — notorious for the exploitation of a migrant workforce composed primarily of Moroccan women — thousands have been deployed in the fields for over a month now, in preparation for the first major strawberry harvest. Nor did the state of emergency declared in Finland this March stop the Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners from coordinating weekly charter flights from Kyiv. It is expected that its present demand of sixteen thousand seasonal farm workers will be met by importing ten thousand workers from Ukraine, Russia, Estonia, and Thailand.

But by far the most pressing situation is unfolding in the UK’s horticulture, which already before Brexit depended on seventy thousand seasonal laborers — most of them Eastern Europeans. With the termination of free movement between the UK and the EU last December, agro-capital is forced to rely on a haphazardly designed Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme. At the time of writing, this scheme still lacks one operator and caps the number of temporary workers too low at thirty thousand. The pilot also reconfigures the composition of the “imported laborers” — further worsening their exploitation.

Seasonal Workers Pilot

The deployment of seasonal workers in English and Scottish agriculture dates back at least to the early fourteenth century when itinerant Irish migrants made annual journeys in search of employment. As documented by E. J. T. Collins, the diversity of itinerants tended to increase as centuries passed, becoming most pronounced in the areas with high labor demand.

The tongues spoken in the nineteenth-century Fenlands, a coastal plain in eastern England, were once described as being as many as the “builders of Babel.” Equally, the Kent hop fields attracted every manner and nationality of itinerant worker. In the conurbations where the industrial and agricultural labor markets overlapped — such as the historic county of Middlesex — seasonal workers arrived from Wales and Ireland, as well as distant Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire.

Post–World War II shortages precipitated the introduction of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) in 1945. The scheme allowed larger numbers of foreign nationals to temporarily reside in the UK to harvest fruit and vegetables. The sizable increase in the employment of migrant workforce from the 1990s onward can be explained with reference to the specific demand structure characterizing the agricultural sector. Agro-capital’s propensity to regard migrant laborers as “critical” is attributable to the changing relations between growers and supermarkets over the past three decades.

Ben Rogaly observes how the buyer-driven structure of the UK horticultural supply chain has cemented retailers’ position as appropriators of the lion’s share of value from growers. In a sector with high levels of competition, many companies have been forced out of business, and those that remained forced to intensify production.

They also started specializing in packing and primary processing of their own products and imports. The buyer-driven governance of the chain meant that the quality of produce has become a point of reference governed by precise standards of size, shape, texture, and color. Wage deductions discipline workers to harvest and pack only those products that fulfill supermarkets’ criteria.

After the enlargement of the EU in 2007 and the removal of restrictions on the free movement of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens in 2013, Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition scrapped the SAWS scheme. But its belief that the future low-skilled labor migration needs would be satisfied from within the EU labor market proved to be short-lived. After Britain voted to leave in 2016, horticulturalists voiced renewed concerns over workforce shortages.

In March 2019, the UK government responded by announcing the commencement of the SWP scheme for 2019 and 2020, operated by two recruitment agencies — Concordia and Pro-Force. By December 2020, more than nine thousand seasonal workers’ visas had been issued, with Ukrainian workers the overwhelming majority (87 percent) followed by Moldovans (4 percent) and Belarussians (3 percent).

This emerging strategy to recruit cheap and pliable labor from the further peripheries of Europe, outside the EU, signifies a changing composition of the migrant workforce arriving in the post-Brexit UK. Agribusinesses are increasingly likely to draw on this pool of labor, already used to alleviate labor shortages in EU member states that had earlier “exported” their own workforces to the UK, such as Poland, Estonia, or Lithuania.

Under the SWP scheme, migrant workers must pay £244 for a six-month visa and demonstrate £1,270 in savings. The proof of savings must be provided in the form of bank statements — thereby excluding those who do not have a bank account. Moreover, such sums may be beyond the means of temporary migrants. Frequently, laborers have to rely on employers to certify their maintenance funds and arrange transportation. While this entrenches workers’ dependence on their soon-to-be exploiters, seasonal migrants still have to cover the costs of clothing, travel tickets, initial living expenses, and language courses. These high up-front costs exacerbate the risk of debt peonage.

The end of free movement between the EU and the UK prompted the expansion of the SWP’s quota to thirty thousand places — with a consequent need for two additional recruitment agencies to run the pilot. For 92 percent of British fruit and vegetable growers — some of whom announced plans to shift the production to countries like Senegal — the revised quota is a far cry from the estimated seventy thousand picking and packing roles available in the sector.

Today most farming businesses are in dire straits as the Home Office is yet to issue a sponsor license to the last pilot operator selected by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). While the AG Recruitment firm has recently been appointed as the third out of four operators of the expanded SWP, this move has been significantly delayed, increasing the likelihood that many migrants cannot be recruited until the second part of the harvesting season.

According to the vice president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), “some parts of the horticulture industry could face a similar fate to the daffodil sector, which suffered crop losses of between 25-40 percent earlier this year because they just didn’t get the numbers they needed.”

These tribulations are exacerbated by three additional factors. For one, the third wave of the pandemic in continental Europe casts doubt over the numbers of EU nationals who could potentially return to the UK for seasonal jobs. While last year’s NFU seasonal worker survey revealed that 60 percent of current laborers held settled or pre-settled status, returnee rates from the previous year were only 30 percent. Put differently, the survey pointed to the overall decline of EU workers in British horticulture, at a time when labor shortages are ever more pressing.

Moreover, while the fiasco of the “Pick for Britain” campaign to recruit UK-born workers has nothing to do with their oft-evoked “laziness,” its recent abandonment adds to the uncertainty. The local workforce will now be recruited by farms with the help of the Department of Work and Pensions — notorious for what Frances Ryan calls the “most barbaric social policy” under Tory rule.

In these conditions, it is no coincidence that since the start of the year, Defra has undertaken a review into the automation of horticultural sector. Reports of tech start-ups’ experiments with robotic arms to harvest raspberries, self-driving tractors with precision spraying and weeding, and automated cauliflower picking fronts abound. But it is difficult to imagine that the automation-led bid to cope with labor shortages will be successful in the near future. Add these quandaries together and you get the impression that 2021 may well mirror 2020.

Bonded Labor

The pandemic has again exposed the appalling conditions of seasonal agricultural workers across Europe and beyond. Nuanced accounts of their predicaments have been provided by Madlen Nikolova and Loren Balhorn, Irene Peano, Vladimir Bogoeski, and others. This year’s generalized return to a visa regime in the UK attests to a significant undermining of rights for those who until recently arrived from Eastern European EU member states — notably Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Lithuania.

Migrant workers without a settled or pre-settled status can no longer take a second job or move to a permanent position on the farm. They are now disqualified from bringing family members to the UK or having access to public funds. This nascent recruitment regime also rests on the pent-up exploitation achieved through a combination of piece rates and zero-hour contracts.

As highlighted by Sarah O’Connor and Judith Evans, the UK Home Office asserts that the operators of the SWP are not permitted to offer zero-hour contracts to seasonal workers. And yet, the findings from the recently published Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) report, which investigated the experiences of workers in Scotland taking part in the SWP between March 2020 and February 2021, reveal not only the prevalence of this extreme form of precarious employment but its frequent combination with piece rates.

Take the example of Castleton Fruit Farm near Arbroath. Receiving no guaranteed work opportunities, seasonal laborers were paid only for the quantities of fruit picked by the hour. Because the UK law stipulates that pickers on this piece-rate regime must be “topped up” to the minimum wage of £8.72 an hour if they have not picked enough to earn this amount, the farm deployed supervisors to check workers’ performance every two hours.

Those whose efficiency “lagged” were sent back to the caravans for the rest of the day — unable to earn more money and struggling to pay £57.40 weekly rent. Workers who could not pick the produce fast enough resorted to buying boxes of picked fruit from the fastest-performing colleagues just to be permitted to stay in the field. Agro-capital’s strategy to juxtapose zero-hours contracts with piece rates — which Marx once dubbed “the most fruitful source of reductions in wages, and of frauds committed by capitalists” — increased seasonal migrants’ dependency on employers now exercising almost unlimited disciplinary capacities.

The conduct undergirding the SWP recruitment regime conclusively ties wage-laborers to agro-capital. As noted above, currently the scheme is managed by three operators that function as sponsors of seasonal workers. Legally, operators must undertake robust monitoring of employment conditions across the sector, and SWP guidance says that operators must also ensure that workers are permitted to “move to another employer where possible.” Yet, despite such language, the recruitment regime erases the last juridical freedoms in the sector: in most cases, workers have to work in the roles provided by the labor provider and have no opportunity to change jobs.

A group migrant laborers pick strawberries in a greenhouse during the harvest on May 7, 2020 in Lepe, Spain. (Niccolo Guasti / Getty Images)

The FLEX report found that most surveyed workers did want to change their employer. Even though supervisors provided information about how to request a transfer — contacting a home recruitment agent, consulting their pilot operator or asking their farm to make the transfer — barely a single demand was satisfied.

In cases when workers found employment on neighboring farms themselves, the transfer was denied by their initial farms citing labor shortages. Little wonder, then, that having incurred debts to pay for their travel to the UK and unable to change employers, migrants are short on funds and see their debts pile up. With no savings to pay for the return ticket home, their freedom to simply resign and go home is reduced. The only way out is to again borrow money for a return flight — sometimes from black market lenders.

These forms of exploitation on farms around Europe — as well as in brothels, hand car washes and nail salons — have invited references to “forced labor” and “modern slavery” among charities, the ILO, billionaires, philanthropes, and even right-wing politicians. However, as Emily Kenway cautions, subsuming the fight against the worst forms of exploitation under the rubric of “modern slavery” risks painting a picture wherein everyone in forced labor is seen as slaves rather than exploited wage-laborers.

Simultaneously, the discourse around “modern slavery” would have us believe that instances of severe exploitation are nothing else than momentary reappearances of immoral, antediluvian, and extra-capitalist remnants of the past that can be solved with few policy tweaks. But if we draw on Jairus Banaji’s trailblazing work, then aforementioned forms of exploitation do not really belong to the earlier feudal, tributary or the so-called “slave” modes of production.

Instead, they testify to the multifaceted forms in which living labor is recruited, exploited, and controlled by capitalist employers. Perhaps a more apposite analogy for the above vignettes of exploitation is provided by the plight of “confined laborers” recruited through the nineteenth-century agricultural gang-system in Lincolnshire, which Marx meticulously analyzed in the first volume of Capital.

Against All Odds

The amalgam of temporary nature of employment, concentration in smaller farms, language barriers, and high turnover rates means that advancing seasonal workers’ collective organization to win decent pay increases or defend basic rights is a tall order. This does not imply that trade unions and NGOs remain apathetic to the plight of those who come to Britain to earn a living. Indeed, small independent unions such as the United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) have been at the forefront of organizing precarious and migrant workforces in sectors other than agriculture.

Since the start of the pandemic, the UK’s largest trade union Unite — which has thousands of members in food and agriculture sectors but at times has fallen short of putting migrants’ rights atop its agenda — has emphasized the importance of enforcing health and safety regulations given a high incidence of fatalities in sectors’ workplaces. It also pointed to the need to constantly monitor migrants’ salaries to eradicate abusive practices.

In Northern Ireland, Unite launched a campaign against the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. The board plays a vital role in putting a floor under farmworkers incomes, piece rates, overtime as well as sick pay and entitlements, and offers partial protection to migrants. Important actions have been taken by the Fife Migrants Forum and FLEX NGO in Scotland.

Partnering with the devolved government and the JustRight charity, organizations authored new guidance for seasonal migrant workers in Scotland’s soft fruit sector. Translated into Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, and Russian, the leaflet sets out employers’ duties, supplies workers with information about the rate of pay, working time regulations, overtime, holidays, sick pay, and specifies what qualifies as “safe” accommodation. It includes useful contact details for those migrant workers looking for legal advice and in need of health care.

Elsewhere in Europe, seasonal migrant workers have mounted strike action, against all odds. In the middle of last May, around two hundred Romanian migrants at an asparagus and strawberries farm in Bornheim, Germany refused to take the busses from their container camp to the fields, protesting against low and unpaid wages. After the company employing them became insolvent, they faced a possibility of no pay for the season’s work.

Moreover, a law firm which had taken charge of the company threatened to fire the workers and evict them from company accommodation. Supported by the anarcho-syndicalist Freie ArbeiterInnen-Union in nearby Bonn, the workers managed to win at least some of the overdue payments, and no one was made homeless. The union assisted every striking worker with finding a new job or getting back to Romania.

Less than a week later, undocumented Italian and migrant farm workers represented by the Unione Sindacale di Base (USB) Lavoro Agricolo union went on strike in Torretta Antonacci, one of the largest informal agricultural settlements in Italy. Although the Italian government passed an amnesty law giving migrants the chance to apply for a six-month residence permit, the measure was perceived as favoring the interests of agribusinesses at the time of the pandemic rather than enhancing workers’ rights. The application for permits was made available only for those, whose stay permit expired after October 31, 2019, thereby excluding the majority of undocumented agricultural laborers.

On May 21, protesters walked through the countryside toward the prefecture of the southern city of Foggia, where they delivered produce to government officials. Union representatives urged Italian consumers not to buy fruit and vegetables on the day to show solidarity “with the request of regularization that comes from an army of invisible (workers) in the Italian countryside and suburbs.”

The coming months yet again promise to catapult the plight of the world’s seasonal laborers into the limelight. Solidarity with their struggles remains a top priority.