5am starts, poverty wages and no running water—the grim reality of “picking for Britain”

"When I started there were 30 Brits working in this field; a month later there are just five of us"

May 30, 2020
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For decades, the UK’s agricultural industry has relied on migrant labour. Each year, an estimated 80,000 workers, primarily from Eastern Europe, come to harvest Britain’s fruit and veg. But this year, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and ongoing uncertainties regarding Brexit, many would-be fruit pickers have been unable to make the trip. This has left a gaping hole in the agricultural workforce—one which British workers are expected to fill.

On the 19th May, Environment Secretary George Eustice launched the official “Pick for Britain” campaign, encouraging the population to take up work on farms across the country. If it fails, the media’s bleak premonitions of “a disastrous situation” in which “mountains of food are left to rot” could find themselves realised. Signalling an intensification of the recruitment drive, last week the government wheeled out Prince Charles. Donning his humblest, most rumpled coat, in a video message he urged viewers to sign up. While acknowledging that the work would be “unglamorous and at times challenging,” Charles unashamedly evoked notions of national duty and that fabled “blitz spirit.”

I’ve been working on a strawberry farm since mid-April. Like others, I wasn’t covered by the government’s furlough scheme and wanted to help the country in a time of crisis. But as I watched Charles’s broadcast from a blustery field, the gale pummelling at my caravan’s chipboard walls, I couldn’t help but feel that I knew something I shouldn’t. It was as if I’d taken a glance behind the curtain and, to my horror, found the machine.

Before I continue, I must stress that it’s not all bad. In this isolated corner of the English countryside you’ll find a veritable mosaic of nationalities and cultures. The workforce of about 90 includes Romanians, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Moldovans and English. All are housed together on the farm’s caravan site and get on extremely well. The all-night Romanian discos, beers in the sun and games of football have been welcome respite from the monotony of lockdown.

The English contingent are equally intriguing. We all arrived within the last month, inspired by the government’s calls to action. To commit to working on a farm with complete strangers for six months you have to be a certain kind of person—gregarious, adventurous and—whisper it—a bit odd. We’re a diverse bunch and this has allowed for the ludicrous brand of social alchemy normally reserved for reality television. Where else would you hear a window cleaner from Croydon debate the morality of bin-diving with a 40-year-old hippie and didgeridoo enthusiast?

However, 5am starts and 10-hour shifts leave little time for socialising. Our weeks are dominated by work. And it’s tough. Really tough. Being bent over picking fruit for most of the day puts huge strain on your body. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if we were adequately paid and properly housed. In reality, neither is true. The UK boasts the cheapest food in western Europe. My experience has made clear that this is only made possible through the neglect of employee welfare.

For example, the notion that you can make good money through “piece work,” as has been asserted by both MPs and industry experts, is a fallacy. Unless you have significant prior experience, making anything above the minimum wage is highly unrealistic. After funds are deducted for rent and deposits, our salaries come to about £7 per hour. Furthermore, management’s conduct towards employees has been, at times, appalling. I’ve seen my colleagues berated, degraded and branded “stupid” by their superiors.

The facilities are equally disappointing. Despite being in the throes of a deadly pandemic, the farm owner refuses to supply the bathrooms with hand soap. To save on bills, caravans aren’t hooked up to the mains. Consequently, they have no running water and can get perilously cold at night. We were assured that the caravans would be cleaned before our arrival. Instead, I found a cabin seething with mould and littered with mouse droppings. Mice make dreadful housemates. They are reclusive, dirty, and scarper whenever you suggest they put some money towards bills.

Unfortunately, these issues are common. According to a 2018 report by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), labour exploitation is on the rise in the UK, and the agricultural industry is one of the worst offenders. As part of a project conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), researchers identified the most prevalent forms of labour exploitation. These included workers being paid less than promised, fees flowing back to the employer through rent, and reliance on an employer for everything, including food, creating a “dangerous power imbalance.” I’ve witnessed all this and more during my time here.

Whether you see it as symptomatic of a poor English work ethic, or righteous indignation at unjust treatment, the fact is that senior management and the English workers have frequently clashed. Sources of contention have been extremely varied. Staff have taken issue with misogynistic and abusive language, the state of local facilities, and being frequently underpaid. At one point, there were more than 30 Brits here. But after just four weeks, with many unwilling to work under grim conditions for such low pay, we’re now down to five.

In the short term, the spectre of fresh fruit and vegetable shortages could well become reality. If growers fail to attract and retain vital British workers, as has been the case here, farms will lack the manpower to harvest their crops. Long-term prospects are equally stark. Currently, the vast majority of imported labour arrives in the UK under EU Freedom of Movement laws. Brexit looks set to bring an end to this.

Increased reliance on domestic labour seems inevitable. But if farms hope to weather Covid-19 by employing a substantial British workforce, they’ll need to change—starting with better pay, improved facilities and fairer treatment of staff. If farms prove too obdurate to adapt, Prince Charles may have to go without his strawberries this summer.