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farm workers

Agricultural workers in Suffolk. Photo: Keith Evans

The Left should reject calls by the farmers’ industry body to continue the system of low pay and unsustainability

The National Farmers Union (NFU) - an industry body, not a trade union - says it needs 10,000 to 20,000 migrant workers in order to get crops in this year.

The situation is critical, it told environment secretary Michael Gove this week, because the number of EU migrant workers has fallen. The biggest reason for the decline is that the economic recovery, limited as it is, in Eastern Europe has been accompanied by rising wages - unlike in Britain.

So the NFU is demanding a return of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme under which non-EU migrants would be brought in on temporary contracts and work permits to pick fruit and vegetables this summer. The scheme was scrapped in 2013.

An NFU representative explains:

“When we say we need action, we don’t want an announcement, we just want a scheme urgently for non-EU workers. Other countries get it; the Portuguese are hiring Thais, the Spanish are hiring Moroccans, even the Polish get it, they are hiring Ukrainians under their equivalent of seasonal agricultural schemes. It was good that he [Michael Gove] acknowledged, we need access to non-EU workers, however our growing season comes in earnest in spring and we are running out of time,”

And another highlighted the case of a berry farmer moving his business to China "because of Brexit".

It should be clear that this is an entirely capitalist solution and demand. It is not about the freedom, in any sense, of any group of workers or their rights. And it is not about putting affordable good food on the plate for working people in Britain.

It is a demand for a scheme under which workers from poor countries are shipped in, subject to strict immigration control, biletted and then shipped out a couple of months later. "We need access to non-EU workers," says the farming business – access, like getting cheap palm oil or minerals from the Global South.

They do not say what they pay for this hard job. They do not say that the agricultural wages boards should be re-established to set decent minimum pay. And they do not say - well, there is a shortage of labour at a critical point so we will just have to pay more to attract workers, from wherever.

That is what is supposed to happen in a capitalist market, isn't it? If demand for a commodity exceeds supply the price of it is supposed to go up.

But they want labour and the labour market treated differently. They cannot attract workers on low pay and bad conditions, so they want to create a category of poor workers who have to accept that and are subject to state control. They could not walk off the job because it would breach their visa and they would be deported.

That would all be enforced by the UK Border Agency working with transnational labour agencies and gangmasters. 

That takes us back to the brutalised system of twilight migrant labour that led to the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecombe Bay in 2004.

There is no way that socialists can adopt or endorse these demands from the NFU. They are capitalist demands and nothing to do with freedom of movement for workers.

They arise from the fact that the business model of the farming industry of low pay and concentration into gigantic units has run up against its own contradictions. The big farmers are in a spat with the Tory government. But it too shares that model of capitalist Britain.

The socialist solution to finding 10,000 to 20,000 workers in the coming months in the farming sector is to increase pay - dramatically.

The farmers will say they cannot do that because it will eat into profits. Tough. If we go along with that argument then we permanently accept super exploitative conditions and politically we reconcile to the continued dominance of capitalist interests in every area of life in Britain.

And we are not talking about the struggling, small hill farmer here. We are talking the huge farming conglomerates tied to the rest of agribusiness, owning vast swathes of the most productive land in Britain and holding both food production and people in the industry to ransom.

The Unite union, which organises among agricultural workers, makes those points. In responding to the threat of the NFU’s berry producer (with a turnover of £101 million a year) to shift production to China (thence to pump out carbon dioxide to import produce back to Britain) the union’s press release says:

“Unite member Dr Charlie Clutterbuck, author of Bittersweet Brexit: The future of food, farming, land and labour, said the answer to protecting and increasing the UK’s food security lies in the fairer distribution of farming subsidies.

“’We should use the funds that go to the EU’s common agricultural policy, which amount to about £3bn, to pay proper living wages. Currently, all that money goes to landowners. The more land you have, the more money you get and they get that for doing nothing. It should go to workers instead,’ explained Clutterbuck.

“’That £3bn would translate into about 300,000 permanent agricultural jobs. It would transform people’s wages and make a whole lot of difference in terms of investment in our rural economies and the way we farm. [The money is] there regardless of what type of Brexit we have, because the responsibility for common agricultural policy funds can be devolved to a national level.”

If the big farmers say they will close down, move elsewhere or stop production, then the answer is to sequester their productive land and work it on a different, environmentally sustainable, higher paying and socially productive model. That is a path to the regeneration of poorer rural and coastal areas.

Nor should anyone on the left, out of a false version of anti-xenophobia, give credence to the claims you often hear from the labour agencies or farming business. Those are that they can't get "British workers", because they are too lazy and not prepared to do the work - unlike the keen, untroublesome, obedient migrant workers.

That expresses two aspects of reactionary ruling class ideology - that workers from poorer countries just love backbreaking work at poverty pay (they are suited to it) and that the manual British working class suffers from a welfare dependency culture. Keen Coolies, feckless Chavs. That was also the ideology of the British imperial ruling class in the Victorian period.

And imperialism is the name for forced extraction of resources from abroad, racist exclusion of foreign workers from full citizenship and rights, their hyper-exploitation, and playing divide and rule the better to exploit also the domestic labour force.

Would there be industry-wide dislocation in moving to a new model of higher pay, better rights and conditions, and their impact on profits? Yes. The same is true of other industries - such as social care entirely dependent on very low paid female, and often migrant labour. The state would have to step in.

The same is also true of moving to environmentally sustainable agriculture and industries, breaking up the destructive and dangerous mega-factory production of chicken or pork, for example.

But what do we think it means to raise the prospect of a fundamental transformation of the British economy and society, as part of pushing for similar developments globally?

We either, as socialists, push for that, or we endorse capitalist and corporate policy - whether in or outside of the EU.

It is clear what "Remain" means for Britain's giant agribusiness. It is to remain on a business model of low pay, unsustainability, cartel deals with the big four supermarkets, squeezing small producers, decline of rural communities, and a workforce that is not only not voluntary but is shackled by additional state restrictions compared with those who have citizenship rights.

It is time to leave that model of the economy and society.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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