For decades, European migrant labour has been part of the British rural landscape. Now, in pursuit of a fantasy, Brexit risks leaving the soft fruit and veg industry to decay. SIMON WATKINS reports.
The landscape is straight out of The Darling Buds of May, or perhaps Nigel Farage’s English pastoral fantasy. Rolling hills, touched with the last wisps of morning mist; a patchwork of hedgerows and acre upon acre of fruit trees. Rosemary Farm, nestled in this landscape and straddling the East Sussex-Kent border, grows apples, blackcurrants and grapes for the burgeoning British wine business. There is only thing to spoil this Ukipper’s wet dream of rural England – the convoy of Romanian workers wending their way across the fields to work. They, and thousands like them, are the workers on which British agriculture depends. Each year, roughly 75,000 migrant workers from Europe travel to Britain to pick our fruit and veg. Since last year’s referendum vote, the numbers are already down and the situation is now heading towards crisis. Even before Brexit has formally taken effect, the crashing pound has made Britain a less attractive place to work and they have also noticed that this country is no longer quite so welcoming. Peter Reeves, co-owner of Rosemary Farm in East Sussex, is, however, welcoming, both to his Romanian crew and a curious journalist. We all meet up at the farmyard on a winding, tree-shadowed country lane at 7.30am. From here Peter leads the way to the fields. We follow in a crocodile of cars as he drives along muddy tracks until we reach a particular five acres of sloping hillside, covered by neat rows of vines. The Romanians alight from their vehicles – a handful of cars, a people carrier and a Ford Transit van. Of the 30 Romanian workers – mostly, but not exclusively, men – just two speak English. One of these, the foreman Dan, acts as interpreter as Peter outlines the work for the day: divide into four rows; each row must have someone who has picked before to guide the others. Workers arrive at Rosemary Farm.
Peter hands out plastic gloves; most of the Romanians have brought their own clippers. And they set to work. As the crates fill up, Peter drives the forklift, stacking the piles of green fruit onto a trailer. This batch of grapes, the very first of the season, is headed for Chapel Down winery, one of the big names in Kent’s booming wine industry. In a year or so, these grapes will be served up in bottles of the winery’s Bacchus white wine. This is the reality of that bucolic fantasy. It may be a picture postcard landscape of rural productivity, but it all hinges on migrant workers from the EU for this crucial grape-picking season. The Romanians break for lunch and Michaela, a life-long agricultural worker both in Romania and Britain, explains how this year has been different. (Her colleague Oana, the only other worker who speaks English, acts as translator.) ‘I understand that England does not want any more overseas people,’ Michaela says. ‘But what would English people do without us? We are hard workers. We know how to work. We work in the wind and in the rain. I have not seen too many English people do that.’ Today happens to be a cool, late summer’s day in September. But this is early for the grape harvest and the workers will be picking for just one day. Usually the main grape-picking is in October or even as late as November. Michaela continues: ‘I come 2-3 times a year depending on whether there is the work. I drive and it takes two or three days, depending on the traffic in Germany.’ She notes that the border checks coming into the UK were noticeably greater – even though in theory nothing has yet changed in our relationship with Europe’s migrant workers. And why make that long journey? ‘Money is the main thing. We have a very bad salary in Romania or there are no jobs and pretty poor pay. The minimum wage is about £200 a month.’ Working in Britain, they naturally can earn far more. ‘They all get at least the minimum wage because that is the law,’ says Peter. ‘Quite how much they get I do not know, but the gang master charges us £11 an hour for each worker or £11.50 for the foreman.’ Farm owner Michael and Peter Reeves (right).
The workers are all provided by Sussex company, Fruits of Labour, which has an arm specialising in providing workers for the fast-growing vineyard industry in the south of England. ‘The gang master covers the national insurance and holiday pay so we do not have to. For us to do that would be a lot of paperwork,’ Peter explains. For him, there is almost no other way to source the workers he needs at short notice. He and his business partner and brother Michael, had been focussed on growing apples and blackcurrants, including for Ribena. But they switched some of their 300 acres over to grapes in 2007, securing a regular contract to supply Chapel Down. ‘It costs about £11,000 per acre to plant vines and get them to production of grapes, which takes about two years. At the moment it is all growth and there are a lot of people planting grapes, even without contracts to supply anyone. So there is a growing demand for seasonal labour. ‘And it’s not just picking – there’s pruning and removing leaves to allow the grapes to get the sun. People who say vineyard workers are unskilled are not quite right,’ Peter says. So why not local workers drawn from the unemployed? ‘We can’t get them in because we need pickers just for today, but we don’t need them next week. We only decided to pick on Friday [it is now Tuesday]. ‘So I rang the gang master on Friday to say: ‘Can I get a crew for Tuesday? And they said, yes. How else can you do that? The unemployment black spots are not around here. ‘And then there is the difficulty for people of moving on and off benefits. The Universal Credit was supposed to do something about that… we shall see,’ Peter says, with more than a hint of scepticism. The official figures bear him out: claimant count unemployment in this area is just 0.9%, less than half the national average. So does he fear for the effect of Brexit on this essential labour force? After a few choice words about the government ‘not knowing what they are doing’ he concludes sanguinely, that government will find a solution… ‘because they will have to’.
And so a process as basic as harvesting food in 21st century Britain is now entangled in the Brexit fiasco and in that most politically toxic of issues, migration. The National Farmers’ Union warned of a potential Brexit labour squeeze during the referendum campaign. Peter took it up locally too. ‘I raised it with various MPs and I went to quite a few meetings. But it was always a case of them saying ‘this will be sorted’. But, you know, the campaign was all just about that ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’.’ But in fact the farming labour shortage has been a long-time coming; the NFU has been warning of a looming crisis for years. The problems are not all to do with Brexit. A failure of economic foresight, political nerves over immigration and even the British benefits system that makes casual short-term work a bureaucratic nightmare for those on benefits, have all been fuelling the problems for years. But Brexit is set to bring this issue to a head by making matters even worse and, far from encouraging a more open conversation about migration, as so many Brexiteers argued, it has made it an even more politically-fraught issue, one that Government seems unable to address with the frankness it requires. Ali Capper is chair of the NFU’s Horticulture and Potatoes board and runs her own fruit farm in Worcestershire. Like Peter, she is open to local workers on her farm, but says she typically ends up with barely a handful each year. And so she also depends on migrant labour for work during the soft fruits season. ‘A labour shortage has been an issue all season and it’s getting worse as the season has gone on,’ she says. The lack of local workers to carry out this seasonal work is easy to explain. ‘Firstly, we’ve already got the lowest unemployment rate in this country for years, but in the areas that need these workers the unemployment rates are even lower,’ says Capper, echoing Peter Reeves’ views. Capper’s second point is that agricultural work is seasonal. Modern British expectations have moved on. ‘Individuals in the first world want employment that is permanent and all year round,’ says Capper. ‘And they want to live and work in the same place. It does not suit people’s aspirations.’ This is ironic, Capper adds, because in fact fruit-picking pays more than many jobs. ‘Fruit picking jobs tend to pay well above the National Living Wage, they pay £9-£10 an hour.’ Until recently, farmers could use a system known as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to access migrant workers. SAWS was not an EU creation. It was not even very new, dating back to the years immediately after the Second World War. For more than 60 years it provided a system in which migrant workers, mainly students, from Europe could come to the UK to work during key labour-intensive periods in the farming year. After free movement was introduced it became less relevant to most EU workers. The last two countries from which workers came to the UK under SAWS were Bulgaria and Romania. In 2013, about 20,000 workers from these two countries came to work on Britain’s farms under the SAWS system, but when these two nations gained full access to the EU and their workers could move freely to work in the UK, SAWS was abandoned. But the expansion of the EU has also created greater prosperity in many Eastern European nations. While Romanian Michaela still complains of unemployment and low pay in her native country, the trend is now moving towards higher levels of employment and better prospects in Romania and elsewhere, and in the near future may make it far less attractive to visit the UK for work. This trend was causing concern at the NFU even before Brexit. And the organisation has been pushing for the last four years for a new scheme to replace SAWS, allowing labour from beyond the EU to come to the UK for seasonal work. ‘The NFU has been talking about the need for some scheme to bring in workers from the rest of the world since 2013,’ says Capper. The idea of a new SAWS, or something similar, is now the most favoured solution in the farming sector, though many believe even that might not be enough. Wyn Grant, professor of politics at the University of Warwick, argues that even SAWS was inadequate to meet labour needs in British farming, partly because of the huge growth in more labour-intensive soft fruit farming in Britain, made possible by the technology of polytunnels. To this, one could add the burgeoning British wine industry which has seen hundreds of acres of vines planted across southern England. Professor Grant dismisses the idea that local labour can meet the demand, echoing both Reeves’ and Capper’s arguments that rural unemployment is very low. He also dismisses the ‘technology solution’, which argues that new farming technology will significantly reduce the need for labour. ‘The government says we can use technology, but that is not available for picking soft fruit. You still need people. In the long run we may get the technology, but it’s not there now.’ This is also borne out by the figures for labour use on British farms, which, despite the growth in soft fruit farming, are among the least labour-intensive in Europe. So, the NFU and others argue, some form of seasonal migrant labour scheme or quota is needed. ‘A new SAWS scheme for Europe would provide some of the labour we need,’ says Professor Grant, ‘but even before SAWs was abandoned there was talk about extending it to Ukraine or even China. If we are now talking about a post-Brexit seasonal workers scheme it should not be limited to the EU.’ Many other EU countries are themselves opening the door to such seasonal migrant workers from beyond even the EU, notably from Ukraine. The need for a scheme to tackle the looming labour shortfall is not in any doubt, at least among those close to our field and orchards. The NFU and the Association of Labour Providers, the trade body for the companies that arrange temporary seasonal workers, are both calling for a new scheme to be introduced within months. ‘We need the government to address the labour shortage there will need to be something in place by 2018,’ says Capper. The ALP even outlined a rough proposal for a new scheme in July this year. Its head of policy Gillian Haythornthwaite, said it was also continuing to lobby the government for action. Surveys of ALP members earlier this year were already pointing to labour shortages and, Haythornthwaite said, the latest view from members were even more troubling. ‘Recent feedback suggests that the situation continues to get worse and is moving towards a crisis.’ The Government has charged the Migration Advisory Committee of economists to examine the effect of Brexit on migration and when asked recently what it was doing to tackle the crisis, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) highlighted the planned MAC report. But, Capper argues, that report cannot help with the immediate issues. ‘The government is distracting people by talking about the Migration Advisory Committee’s report. Its remit is to gather evidence of what business will need in phase three of Brexit, that means after the transition period. It is not even due to report until September 2018. That is too late.’ Naturally the NFU and others are pressing ministers to act more swiftly. ‘There was a very disappointing meeting with Defra officials a couple of weeks ago. There were no assurances given. There was also a meeting between various growers and the home office last week, which was also reasonably disappointing.’ Defra took a slightly different view on the discussions. A spokesman said: ‘Farming Minister George Eustice met recently with farming industry representatives to discuss future access to seasonal labour for the agricultural industry. ‘They held a constructive discussion about the sector’s experience of attracting workers in sufficient numbers for the 2017 picking season, as well as their expectations for next year and once we leave the EU. The meeting also covered what future support the industry may need to ensure the continued growth and productivity of the seasonal produce industry. We recognise securing a strong agricultural workforce is crucial as we develop a new approach to farming outside the EU.’ More meetings are scheduled. ‘They are all intelligent people, the officials and ministers, they understand the need…’ says Capper generously, adding: ‘But the politics are too big for anyone to deal with.’ It is easy to see her point. Theresa May’s government is already fighting a rearguard action against the hard-line Brexiteers. Admitting that even after Brexit there can be no reduction in migrant labour for our farms would be bad enough. Suggesting it should be expanded would be explosive. There are some who are still convinced that the drawbridge can be pulled up; that we can return to some golden age in which Farage-types can sip a pint in the country pub and smile contentedly as an army of Ma and Pop Larkins amble past on their way back from a day’s strawberry-picking. But European migrant labour has been a part of the British rural landscape for decades and there is little evidence that it has been depriving UK workers of jobs. The Migration Advisory Committee investigated the SAWS system in 2013 and concluded: ‘There are no groups in the UK who are obviously disadvantaged by the scheme. The resident labour force is not displaced as UK workers are generally unwilling or unable to take up seasonal farm work.’ The need for British farmers to be able to access new workers was already growing, even before Brexit reared its ugly head. This would have forced an adjustment, but one which could have evolved at a steady pace. Brexit is threatening to turn it into an acute crisis. At just the moment when Britain needed to think about how to access more labour for its farming sector, Brexit threatens to kill off the long-standing and mutually beneficial relationship that has built up between our farms and migrant workers from Europe. Back in East Sussex the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is, for the time being, in full flow. The transit vans and people carriers of migrant workers are for now still turning up at the crack of dawn and the work of putting fruit and vegetables on our supermarket shelves and wine in our bottles continues. Dan – the foreman of the workers attending to Peter Reeves’ harvest – left Romania to live in Britain in 2011, after four years as a regular migrant worker. He now works full-time for the gang master company organising the teams of workers. ‘When we came first time it was for money, but we started to like this country. I arrived in the UK and it changed my mind and it changed my mentality. My wife is also full-time working in West Sussex.’ Does he worry about what Brexit will mean? ‘I am not worried. I pay my taxes and my national insurance. I am not worried. My life is like every English person.’ Others are not so relaxed on the behalf of workers like Dan. Recently, the CBI and the TUC issued a joint statement bewailing the continued failure of Brexit talks to clarify the status of EU citizens living in the UK (and vice versa). The two organisations slammed the current state of limbo as ‘intolerable’. ‘It is a blight on the values of our nations. Millions of workers and thousands of firms are today united in their call to leaders on both sides to find an urgent solution. A clear guarantee of the right to remain for citizens in both the UK and EU27 is needed within weeks,’ the two organisations declared. For the majority of EU migrant workers like Michaela, who return home after every harvest, things are less certain. As to whether she would like to keep coming to work, she has no doubts. ‘I would like to keep coming back.’ She shrugs: ‘But we will have to wait to see. We will do what they tell us to do.’ As Peter Reeves says, there will probably be some kind of solution from Whitehall – because there has to be. Perhaps some British workers can be lured back to the land and perhaps technology (the government’s rabbit-from-a-hat solution for every Brexit problem) will also help fill the gap… eventually. In the meantime, a system that has been working well for all involved, that has no significant effect on British domestic unemployment, and which has helped British farmers expand into new products, risks being turned upside down simply to feed a fantasy vision of Britain. The final irony could be that if British farms can no longer produce certain products at the prices and in the quantities demanded by British consumers, we may simply end up importing them instead. Another triumph for Brexit. Simon Watkins is a business and financial journalist