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Seasonal migrant workers feeding the nation

Published 17 March 2022 / By Bethany Robertson, Roxana Barbulescu, Carlos Vargas-Silva

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Introduction

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.

As part of a recent UKRI project Feeding for Nation, which brings together social scientists from the University of Leeds and COMPAS, we have developed an interactive dashboard to show the historical and recent trends in seasonal migration in UK farming. We have seen from the Museum of English Rural Life's Changing Perspectives in the Countryside that many voices have gone unheard under the guise of rural spaces being seen as homogenous. This new exhibition, and the research project it is based on, makes labour migration in the countryside visible.

Beyond the idea of a static rural community, seasonal migrant farm workers come and go each year, contributing to our food system and rural economies. They are hard to reach, yet economically important as farmers depend on seasonal labour from overseas to process crops and fulfil retail orders. In turn, this keeps local people employed elsewhere in the business and ensures that farms can thrive for future generations. Following Brexit, farms cannot recruit as easily as under the Freedom of Movement. Alternatives to migrant labour in farming have been identified, but migrants continue to make up the fabric of seasonal rhythms in the countryside due to the difficulties of recruiting workers from the UK for temporary work in rural locations and automated technology being early in development. Labour shortages have drawn attention to working conditions and we spoke to farmers and seasonal farm workers to find out about their experiences of post-Brexit immigration, work priorities and mobilities.

Voices of seasonal workers from the research

Seasonal migrant workers often aim to return here annually to support family. The majority support children in further education in their home countries, saving during the six months they work in seasonal agriculture for advance payments on their homes, buying a car or starting a business. For the younger workers, financing their own education is a personal goal and the older seasonal workers who work in farming at home often also use the savings to expand their farms. Seasonal migrant workers can arrive by applying for a visa that bears the name ‘Seasonal worker visa’ or can be domiciliated migrants who tend to be from the EU countries and have settled or pre-settled status. With different associated rights, their experiences vary significantly, affecting how long they can stay and if they can return the following year for the same work.

Migrant farm workers tend to live in static caravans for the duration of the season. Strong bonds develop between the occupiers who cook, do groceries together and often also work on the same team in the field. Workers know little or no English, particularly those who come for the first time, so finding friends to share the experience with or lean on in difficult times is vital for pulling through the season. There are also negative experiences, with workers reporting being maltreated or shouted at by field supervisors and row inspectors. They also often speak with pride of their work. What is most difficult however is being away from families and friends and feeling isolated because of the remote location of the farms. Internet and phones are a connection to their loved ones and their known world, as well as their main source of entertainment. Whilst their presence is transient, with this exhibition we aim to put the spotlight on their lives as part of rural communities.

Whilst the majority of seasonal workers arrive in May or June for harvest, a smaller number arrive in the UK all year round as they contribute to a variety of jobs on the farm. In the winter and early spring months, migrant workers care for raspberry canes, planting, keeping the canes in good condition, replacing frames, pruning the canes and protecting them from birds in rain, wind or hail. Raspberries are fragile to harvest and require individual hand picking and continued delicate care in packing and transporting as they make their way to our pastry chefs, ice cream makers and the tables of thousands of families across Britain.

Explore a day in their life in the online exhibition

The research team have collaborated with the Museum of English Rural Life and artist Sarah Hannis to produce a series of illustrations based on encounters with participants in the research and photographs taken by migrant workers themselves. Please visit and share the online exhibition, launched today, which takes you through a day in the life of migrants who are living in the UK for seasonal farm work.

To find out more about the Feeding the Nation project, take a look at the website. This blog is an edited version of Feeding the Nation: the lives of seasonal migrant workers which appeared on the Museum of English Rural life on 17 March 2022.