Why fruit is picked by migrant workers

This article by Richard Seymour out of the UKraises issues of importance for the workers’ movement in Aotearoa, given seasonal labour’s role in fruit and horticulture, and recent debates – within the ruling class and media – on migration, exploitation and seasonal workers from the Pacific.

The debate over the decision to scrap a seasonal workers’ scheme cuts to the heart of an ambiguity in conservatism

The Tories, in what seems like a short-sighted concession to anti-immigrant politics, have scrapped a seasonal workers’ scheme that allowed Romanian and Bulgarian workers to pick fruit and vegetables in the UK. The growers are outraged, naturally, as this scheme is a source of a healthy profit stream. Indeed, they were looking for a more relaxed migration policy, not a tighter one. Tory politicians in rural constituencies have taken up their cause, with Peter Luff MP suggesting that: “The experience of decades is that British workers don’t want to do this work. They are temporary jobs.”

This sort of debate cuts to the heart of an ambiguity in conservatism: on the one hand, it blames UK workers for not being competitive enough while extolling the virtues of hard-working migrants; on the other hand, it blames immigration for undermining social cohesion and the dilution of national consensus. This argument goes beyond Britain. Wherever there is fruit to be picked, whether it is the United States, New Zealand, or Worcestershire, there are migrant workers. And the argument is heard that “indigenous” workers can’t or won’t subject themselves to such work. There is often a racial subtext, with the assumption being that migrant workers have a special capacity for the menial labour they perform.

There was an opportunity to test this argument in Canada in the late 1990s, when the government embarked upon a punitive “Farmfare” programme for welfare recipients, who would be compelled to enlist for fruit-picking duties in rural Ontario. Opposition to this programme came predictably from trade unions and churches. But the growers also opposed it, preferring to use offshore workers. When it came down to it, their main argument was that offshore workers were more “disciplined” than Canadian welfare workers.

The selection criteria for seasonal work programmes meant they were almost always poor, with a large number of dependants. (A similar pattern of selection was discovered in New Zealand’s seasonal work programme.) These workers took badly paid, back-breaking work and they did it well because they had mouths to feed. Moreover, they were “there”: living on or near the farms rather than travelling from cities. Farmfare candidates, on the other hand, were “undisciplined”. Even if they could be trained up, their Canadian citizenship meant that they had too many alternatives to worry about being rehired. The racialised structures of global capitalism thus “disciplined” offshore workers, making them more timid, pliable and hard-working.

Yet this is only part of the story. Key to this is the cost of labour. The above arguments imply that “indigenous” workers remain unemployed because they refuse to accept degraded work. But the case of fruit pickers in the UK illustrates what is wrong with that argument. A detailed report on seasonal workers in the UK indicates some distinctive features of this type of employment. The workers, largely from Romania and Bulgaria, are nominally paid the minimum wage, although the effective rate is far lower. They are given few hours each per week, perhaps up to 18, and they are accommodated collectively in portable buildings and caravans for which a deduction is made from their pay.

There are a number of factors, then, that drive the cost of this labour down. First, the workers come from countries where the cost of living is lower than in Cambodia or the Dominican Republic, to give two examples. They can support dependants with far less in British pounds than they would need if they had to sustain a family in the UK. Second, their being housed collectively significantly depresses the cost of living, particularly as their accommodation consists of cramped, unliveable quarters. Third, while Bulgaria and Romania are members of the EU, they are subject to “temporary” restrictions on the right of citizens to travel by a number of countries, including the UK. This makes their situation propitious for special working arrangements, and particularly for seasonal, quota-based admission. And their precarious status means they have no choice but to accept lousy conditions.

These are material conditions which have nothing to do with choices made by workers. There are few workers in the UK who, paying normal rent, transit and living costs, would be physically able to make a living on such work or support any dependants. This is why the typical pattern is that the availability of migrant workers creates new jobs in periods of growth. With the offer of cheap, disciplined labour, employers open up jobs they would otherwise not be able to sustain.

This is a nasty, exploitative system: that’s capitalism for you. However, the government’s alternative of simply ending the scheme is no good for anyone except Ukip-loving reactionaries. After all, as Joan Robinson put it: “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

Richard Seymour is a member of the International Socialist Network (UK). This article was originally posted at the Guardian