Will Brexit and COVID-19 mean we see more local workers in UK fields?

By Sam Scott and Karen O’Reilly.

In the context of Brexit and COVID-19 the UK is experiencing severe low-wage labour shortages – in particular, in the horticultural sector. Our research looks at the potential for horticultural employers to deal with this situation by swapping migrants for local British-based workers.

Horticultural employers have long argued for the need for migrants to do the low-wage work on their farms, claiming that they have a stronger ‘work ethic’ than local labour. For its part, local labour has eschewed farm work in recent decades. However, given the events of recent years (especially Brexit from 2016-2021 and COVID-19 from 2020 onwards) there appears to have been some rapprochement between low-wage employers and local labour.

The role of local British-based workers in horticulture has generated considerable discussion for many years. Since at least the turn of the century much of the seasonal labour for harvesting has come from Poland (after the ‘A8’ EU enlargement in 2004), then from Bulgaria and Romania (after the ‘A2’ enlargement in 2007). However, following Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic there have been fears of mass labour shortages due to a fall in EU immigration. This has been regularly reflected in a range of UK newspaper headlines such as: ‘Winnowing EU migrants means rotting crops’ (Financial Times, 2017), ‘UK crops left to rot’ (Independent 2018), ‘Tonnes of crops left to rot’ (The Guardian, 2019), ‘Millions of lettuces left to rot’ (i News, 2020) and ‘Britain’s vegetables are rotting in the fields’ (The Times, 2021).

No wonder, then, that the UK saw the launch of the ‘Feed the Nation’ and ‘Pick for Britain’ campaigns in 2020 to encourage local British-based workers into horticulture. Our ongoing research project has examined these campaigns (though they only lasted for one year) and has so far collected 21 in-depth narrative interviews, with a mix of employers and local British-based workers.

Farm workers in Lincolnshire (image: Mat Fascione)

Prior to our 2021 research, academics noted how low-wage employers tended to favour migrants for their strong ‘work ethic’ whilst relegating local labour to a source of ‘last resort’ (Friberg and Midtbøen, 2018; MacKenzie and Forde, 2009; Scott, 2013; Scott and Rye, 2021; Tannock, 2015). Within these employer hierarchies, or ‘hiring queues’ (Waldinger and Lichter, 2003), the preference for certain nationalities of workers has often changed over time.

The harvest sector and horticultural employment more generally has experienced workplace ‘intensification’ (Rogaly, 2008) as a consequence of cost pressures and associated moves to increase efficiency. Pay and working conditions, as a result, tend to look relatively unfavourable when compared with other sectors of the economy.

Over recent decades, local British-based workers have avoided horticultural employment and horticultural employers have avoided local workers. However, Brexit and COVID-19 appear to have challenged this, at least to some degree. Our research has found successful examples of local British-based workers entering seasonal horticultural employment and softening their views with respect to the nature and value of this work. Alongside this, horticultural employers, when they encounter local workers who last the season, appear to be softening their views too.

In our worker interviews, we noted both negative and positive perceptions of harvest work. These were related to the everyday experience, which were referred to as ‘back breaking’ but enjoyable, especially because of the attractive outdoor environment, the physical benefits and even the camaraderie. Indeed, the benefits of harvest work, especially around bringing people closer to nature, were stressed by many of the local workers we interviewed. As one told us, it can be very rewarding work at a number of levels:

‘At the minute I’m in an office and I would say [harvest work] was more enjoyable because I was outside more than I am at the minute… I think it was definitely a lot less stressful than a lot of other jobs I’ve had. It was quite nice being outside… Like, it’s a very heavy job and it could break people’s backs, but I’d say in terms of pay it was no worse than I’m getting paid at the minute in an office for 12-hour shifts, so the pay and everything was good and I had decent breaks, so I’d say the news reports are not really fair… It wasn’t a bad job in my opinion’ (seasonal fruit picker, early 20s).

Just as local British-based workers had mixed, rather than entirely negative views with respect to harvest work, so employers were softening their views with respect to would-be local labour. Most still felt that the work ethic was strongest amongst migrants, but they were also pleasantly surprised by the successes amongst local harvest workers who did last the season. As the chief marketing manager of a large fruit farm told us, with respect to a recent recruit: ‘He stuck with us, and he actually rose through the ranks. He became a Quality Control role, and then a supervisor role, and then went on to being offered a full time [position] within the company.’

Despite the ongoing negativity and disappointment directed towards local labour by employers, they also (through recent experience) now recognised that it was possible to find, recruit and retain horticultural workers domestically; and then to promote these workers once they had proven themselves.

There seems to have been some rapprochement, therefore, between local British-based workers and horticultural employers in the UK. Employers’ ‘lazy local’ stereotype has been challenged by recent successful recruitment, due to the necessities of Brexit and COVID-19, while some British-based workers have re-evaluated the negativity that surrounds harvest work.

As Lydia Medland has argued in an earlier MMB blog, many people are very interested in producing food and, given the right employment conditions, would choose horticultural jobs. However, the extent to which local labour will, in practice, address seasonal worker requirements – given the current ‘intensified’ employment regime within horticulture – is questionable for now. More likely, locals will be used in certain circumstances as ‘niche’ labour to complement the continued mass recruitment of international migrants and to help, together with migrants, to stop the crops rotting in the fields.

Sam Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Gloucestershire, where he teaches and researches labour migration. He is currently working on the Picking for Britain research project and is looking for more local British-based horticultural workers to interview (contact: sscott@glos.ac.uk).

Karen O’Reilly is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Loughborough University. Her work focuses primarily on international migration and social research methods and she is currently leading the Picking for Britain research project.

To read more about farmworkers and labour migration on the MMB blog see: Does it matter that the UK relies on migrant workers to harvest food?‘ by Lydia Medland and Disposable workers, essential work: migrant farmworkers during the COVID pandemic‘ by Manoj Dias-Abey.

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