Speaking for Ourselves

Britain’s fruit and veg crisis is a foretaste of life after Brexit

Britain’s fruit and veg crisis is a foretaste of life after Brexit

Marta Arena

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - Britain’s fruit and veg crisis is a foretaste of life after Brexit

The impact of coronavirus on migrant labour in the UK – and the UK’s response – could be considered a warning of what might happen after Brexit. 

Due to travel restrictions, many seasonal migrant workers who might normally come from Europe to work in the UK’s agricultural sector have not been able to travel. This threatened to cause a crisis in the UK’s food supply, forcing some of the UK’s largest food suppliers to bring in workers from Eastern Europe on charter flights

But I have a question. Why should any young Bulgarian or Romanian person come to the UK, possibly risking their health on the journey, just so that Brits – many of whom voted to leave the EU as they wanted fewer Eastern Europeans coming to the UK – can have their strawberries this summer? 

Surely those who voted ‘leave’, hoping for a ‘brighter future’ with no migrants, should be the ones rolling up their sleeves and doing the job themselves – digging up the potatoes and picking the strawberries to feed their own families.

But despite a national campaign by the Government to “Pick for Britain” and huge initial enthusiasm, the number of Brits hired for these jobs has remained low and tens of thousands more are still needed. 

During this crisis, we have seen a growing realisation of the necessity of migrant labour in a number of sectors, including food supply chains. We all know that without food we can’t survive and migrant workers who are trained and willing to pick the UK’s fruit and veg are therefore a fundamental piece of the economic puzzle. Yet we are pushing forward with Brexit, which will make it almost impossible for many of these workers to come to the UK in the years ahead. This pandemic has given us just a foretaste of what’s to come. 

The contradiction of this situation and of the attitude towards migrant workers is painfully clear in the Government’s rhetoric. Despite almost daily recognition from MPs and ministers of the importance of migrant key workers during the coronavirus pandemic, Home Secretary Priti Patel has now returned to the misleading language of “high” and “low” skilled workers, pledging to almost close the door on the latter. In a recent debate on the Immigration Bill, which will end free movement and pave the way for a new points-based immigration system, she described the new system as one that will “attract the people we need to drive our country forward through the recovery stage of coronavirus laying the foundation for a high wage, high skill, productive economy.”

Isn’t this a contradiction to you? The very same government who is clapping for key workers, including migrants, is also passing legislation to shut the door in those migrants’ faces.

Unless a person meets certain requirements (such as being able to speak English to a certain standard, having a job offer from an approved employer, and meeting a salary threshold of £25,600) she/he will not be able to enter the UK once the Immigration Bill has been passed. This will affect most people in key worker roles – nurses, bus drivers, supermarket assistants, agricultural workers and so on. 

However, we can be sure that if not enough British people are willing to pick tomatoes, there will still be charter flights to collect workers from other countries – using whatever loopholes they can find in the legislation – in order to keep the economy running and to make sure there will always be food on the tables of British families.

At best, this sounds like having your cake and eating it too. At worst, it’s hypocrisy and exploitation disguised as economic necessity.


TOP IMAGE: Emma Lea Farms, Heather Joan (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)