New exhibition reveals the lives of seasonal migrant workers feeding the UK

Published 17 March 2022 / By COMPAS Communications

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A new online exhibition at the Museum of English Rural Life, launched today, is part of a growing awareness of the need to make labour migration in the UK countryside more visible.

The exhibition is part of a new series exploring the role of seasonal migrant workers in UK food security, and is based on interviews with migrant workers, as part of a UKRI project Feeding for Nation, which brings together social scientists from the University of Leeds and COMPAS.

Dr Roxana Barbulescu, who leads the Feeding the Nation study says:

“Migrant workers in agriculture are essential to our food systems. They leave families and friends behind and come to the UK to work on farms across the country. Living for six months in another country in another language on one’s own is not easy. Yet migrant workers take great pride in their hard work and would like us to see their daily lives. We spoke to farmers and seasonal farm workers to find out about their experiences of post-Brexit immigration, work priorities and mobilities and wanted to present these experiences in a public engaging way. I am grateful to the MERL for taking the idea on board and transforming it into this beautiful exhibition.”

Dr Bethany Robertson, Research Fellow on the Feeding the Nation project team emphasised how

“Working together with the MERL, this series of illustrations brings to life the stories of hidden rural communities working together to put fresh produce on our plates. The experiences of farm workers and farmers show a great deal of resilience during a time of massive changes for agriculture and immigration in the UK over recent years”

Despite Brexit, migrants continue to play a critical role in farm labour due to the difficulties of recruiting workers from the UK for temporary work in rural locations. Labour shortages have drawn attention to working conditions, thanks to a number of media investigations in the last year. The Feeding the Nation team have developed an interactive dashboard to show the historical and recent trends in seasonal migration in UK farming. Professor Carlos Vargas-Silva, of COMPAS, explains why this is useful

“Food security is at the forefront of our minds since Covid, Brexit and the war in Ukraine. These disruptions have highlighted farming as essential work to help feed the nation. What is lesser known is the community of migrants who arrive in the UK on a seasonal basis to plant, pick and pack fresh fruit and vegetables. The number of migrant workers in UK horticulture was estimated at 75,000 in 2018 with 90% being overseas workers with large numbers from Ukraine in the recent years.”

Sarah Hannis, who produced the illustrations for Feeding The Nation reflected on the aim of the work:

“The illustrations invite an insight into the living and working conditions of last year’s seasonal migrant agricultural workers. I hope viewers experience that feeling of being in someone else’s shoes and see a glimpse into the migrants' daily lives while they are in working in the UK.”

Visit the online exhibition.

Read more about the project in our blog