Last week the papers duly reported farmers’ complaints that lack of migrant labour was forcing them to leave berries rotting in the Angus and Perthshire fields; so I thought I would look and see if any jobs were actually being advertised to unemployed people locally. The DWP website, ‘Find a job’, produced just one result for pickers near Arbroath. This appears to be the same farm that is advertising on Total Jobs, where it states ‘own transport is essential’. Total Jobs also has an advertisement for nightshift berry pickers in Blairgowrie, again specifying own transport. And that seems to be it. Otherwise, a Google search for fruit picking jobs in Scotland only turns up advertisements aimed at people from Eastern Europe, who are expected to arrange their working visit long in advance. These recruitment sites stress the hard labour involved and are often aimed at young students. And now, with the unseasonably hot weather, and an eye on Brexit, the farmers are calling for immigration rules to be altered so that they can bring in more migrant labour from places outwith the EU, even from as far away as Thailand.
It is all a far cry from the berry-bus days that have formed a generation of childhood memories, and today’s employment practices have introduced an increasingly-familiar range of problems.
The advertisements for foreign workers make it clear that this is ‘physically demanding work’. Farms must pay at least the minimum hourly wage, but rates are calculated on the assumption that a picker is working quickly. If you can’t pick fast enough to make the minimum wage, you’re out. As Thomas Thomson Blairgowrie Ltd explain on their website:
as an employer our duty is to pay a piecework rate of pay that equates with the National Minimum Wage, the National living wage, or the rate in the Scottish Agricultural Wages Order, whichever is the highest. Economically and legally we cannot employ pickers whose speed of picking consistently falls well below the average of the squad. Slow pickers will initially be offered further training whilst being paid this rate, but if work does not subsequently improve, we will not be able to offer further work.
Pressure on both cost and quality comes from the supermarkets, which have used their near monopoly to devastate UK food production. Farmers pass this pressure onto their workforce. Having foreign workers living on site along with their supervisor fits this highly pressured model perfectly. For the ultra-fit, fruit picking may still provide a profitable ‘working holiday’- especially as any wages saved may go much further in their home country – and farms boast of high rates of returning workers. But others, who can’t keep up with the pace set by the nablers, face sometimes impossible strain.
Almost exactly three years ago, we received a request for help from a young Polish worker who had been employed by an Angus fruit farm along with his friend and his 63 year old uncle. His email explained that around 70% of the workers found the minimum standard impossible to achieve and that people were afraid to complain of the pressures they were under because they feared losing their jobs. All three of them had become ill, and despite getting a doctor’s line they had been fired, leaving them without pay or a roof over their heads. For migrant workers, any deviation from their boss’s demands can have especially severe consequences. (Sadly our Polish contact vanished and never got our response – and when we visited the workers’ caravans the supervisor was quickly alerted and no-one wanted to talk to us.) More recently, talking with a local man who had been ‘lucky’ enough to find a fruit picking job on an Angus farm, we were told that the experience could be compared to the assembly line in Chaplin’s Modern Times. Perhaps it might be more accurate to compare this with working for Amazon.
Yet again, neoliberalism has produced a system that puts almost everyone under stress. A spokesman from Angus Soft Fruits emphasised the stress that is being faced by the farmers, even referencing farmer suicides; however he made no reference to the stresses faced by the workers. (He just complained that the ‘standard’ of East European workers has fallen – so perhaps some have found less stressful jobs elsewhere.) The big winners in all this are the supermarket bosses and owners, though there is also scope for profits for middlemen such as employment agencies, and most farmers still seem quite comfortably off.
Exploiting a further set of migrants might relieve the stresses felt by the farmers, but it is hardly a solution for a better society. Ultimately farms could and should recruit locally, but local people could only welcome this if it was accompanied by a serious change in employment practices. People on the buroo are already forced to accept enough jobs that expect them to tolerate unsustainable levels of stress.