Agricultural workers during COVID19

Feeding the Nation: seasonal migrant workers and food security during COVID-19 pandemic Oct 2020 - March 2022

Overview

The UK edible horticulture sector relies on seasonal workers to plant, harvest and pack crops. 94% of seasonal workers in the UK are EU nationals. Travel restrictions and quarantines pose unprecedented challenges to recruitment, yet seasonal workers remain essential to ensure food security throughout the pandemic.

This project examines the recruitment and experiences of seasonal agricultural migrant workers throughout harvest seasons 2020 and 2021. Using 212 remote qualitative interviews and data analysis, findings will support policy interventions from our policy impact partner – the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – and other stakeholders for which we will prepare monthly reports including comparative international analysis. Furthermore, we will co-produce with our charity impact partner – New Europeans – information materials adapted to the needs of seasonal migrants. To engage with the wider audiences and inform public views about seasonal migration, we propose a web-based Monitor and a virtual exhibition.

The project has 6 key objectives: (1) to provide information in real time on worker recruitment and retention in order to support evidence-based rapid interventions and mitigate risks for UK the food supply; (2) to provide information to limit contagion on farms; (3) to document the experiences of seasonal workers and farmers; (4) to inform decisions on the post-Brexit immigration system in light of possible future pandemics; (5) conceptually, to contribute to theories about the high demand for migrant labour in periods of high unemployment and (6) and to debates on the contributions of low skilled migrants as key workers.

Principal Investigator

Roxana Barbulescu, University of Leeds

Co-Investigators

Carlos Vargas-Silva, University of Oxford

Funder

ESRC

Partners

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

New Europeans

Topics

European UnionLabour MarketsLow Skilled MigrationTransnationalism

Theory

This project contributes to COVID knowledge in three ways. First, it provides up-to-date information on seasonal worker recruitment which is essential to ensure that domestic fresh produce remains available and continues to arrive on supermarket shelves throughout the pandemic. Second, it provides information about the experiences of seasonal workers including hygiene and social distancing on farms, which is vital, as a major epidemic in UK farms would compromise the country’s food supply. Third, it provides analysis that informs the post-Brexit immigration system in light of possible future pandemics, including a possible second wave of COVID-19 after the end of the current transition period (December 2020).

COVID-19 induced travel restrictions and quarantines have created unprecedented labour shortages in the UK agricultural sector for which there is scarce research. This project addresses this knowledge gap by studying seasonal migration recruitment and placement across picking seasons 2020 and 2021.

Seasonal workers in UK farms often reside in shared accommodations, which make social distancing almost impossible. Moreover, isolating those with COVID-19 symptoms in shared on-site accommodation is a major challenge; thus raising questions about screening, hygiene and contagion. The project will provide unique information in this context.

The majority of seasonal agricultural workers in the UK are EU nationals. However, the proposed post-Brexit immigration rules limit the access of EU nationals to low-skilled jobs in the UK. This project explores options for the post-Brexit immigration system of the UK in order to ensure food security in light of possible future pandemics.

Methods

  1. The Challenge

With efforts to increase recruitment of local workers having little success (27 April The Telegraph), seasonal migrant workers remain indispensable for horticultural work and, thus, vital for the sustainability of domestically produced fresh food during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2020 picking season, only a third of the agricultural workforce needed is in place (Secretary for Environment, 19th of May). Travel restrictions make it difficult for British farmers to recruit from abroad. Unorthodoxly, farmers have mobilised to charter flights privately and to even persuade sending states, such as Romania, to waive bans on international travel (The Times, 15th of April).

The current challenges extend beyond recruitment and migration decisions. Once in farms, workers live in shared on-site tied accommodation, raising questions about contagion. An epidemic in UK farms would affect to the country’s food supply. In recognition of such challenges the Select Commons Committee Environmental, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee has launched two inquiries (2020a, 2020b).

There is little support in the community tailored for the needs of seasonal migrant workers. As they tend to live on farms, charities have difficulties is reaching this community. From the migrants’ perspective, they find it difficult to find advice, avoid falling victims to gangmasters and encounter obstacles in understanding their rights particularly access to health care or the EU Settlement Scheme and where to seek help should they need.

COVID-19 has made additional UK labour available with many local residents becoming unemployed, yet there has been no decrease in the demand for seasonal migrant workers (Barbulescu and Vargas-Silva 2020). Traditional theories of labour migration provide little insights on such scenarios of major disparities between high local labour demand and high local labour supply (Borjas 2008). Therefore, conceptually the project seeks to understand the dynamics of migrant recruitment and migration decisions in times of excess labour supply and increase work risk exposure through the prism of seasonal migration in horticulture.

It is estimated that 94% of the 75,000 seasonal workers in the UK are EU nationals (House of Commons 2018: 4). These workers arrive in the UK using EU freedom of movement. After immigration from the EU being central to the Brexit debate (Favell and Barbulescu 2018) and a key driver of the Leave vote (Menon and Evens 2017), low skilled EU migrants were routinely framed as unwanted. The proposed post-Brexit immigration rules limit the access of EU nationals to low-skilled jobs in the UK (Fernández-Reino, Sumption and Vargas-Silva 2020). Conceptually, the project will also contribute to this debate on the re-framing of low skilled migrants following COVID-19 when many serve as key workers maintaining essential services risking their health and that of their families.

Furthermore, in addition to contributing to the short-term need to ensure a food supply in the upcoming months, this project informs discussions on the optimal post-Brexit immigration system. A scheme to recruit seasonal workers from non-EU countries after Brexit (Seasonal Workers Pilot) is being tested, but it is small (10,000) and contingent on visas, which limits its capacity to address sudden events as COVID-19. Better understanding is urgently needed and timing is important as the project is carefully timed to run along the picking seasons 2020 and 2021.

To deliver our impact strategy we will be working with two partners the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and New Europeans as discussed in Section 3.2. Importantly, we collaborate with DEFRA rather the Home Office because it is the former who has competence on seasonal migration.

  1. Research Objectives

The project has 6 key objectives: (1) to provide information in real time on worker recruitment and retention in order to support evidence-based rapid interventions and mitigate risks for UK the food supply; (2) to provide information to limit contagion on farms; (3) to document the experiences of seasonal workers and farmers; (4) to inform decisions on the post-Brexit immigration system in light of possible future pandemics; (5) conceptually, to contribute to theories about the high demand for migrant labour in periods of high unemployment and (6) and to debates on the contributions of low skilled migrants as key workers.

The project will focus on Romanian seasonal workers and Romanian recruitment agencies (which also recruit Moldovans in addition to Romanians), in light of the major importance of this group for seasonal agricultural work in the UK (MAC 2013, NFU 2017). However, the lessons of the project will apply to other groups of seasonal migrant workers.

  1. Methodology

The project relies on remote methodologies (e.g. videoconference interviews, data analysis), and includes 212 qualitative interviews organised in WP1 and WP2.

WP1 – Qualitative interviews with Romanian seasonal migrant workers (n=100 across 2020&2021) to understand and document their experiences from recruitment, travel, quarantine, safe work, stay and return. Interviews will focus on their decision to migrate in the current pandemic context, their access to information about medical guidelines, health care and welfare provision in the UK, work and safety conditions in farms, and transnational arrangements in Romania and the likelihood of returning to the UK for the next picking season. Participants will be recruited through researchers’ contacts in the Romanian community and social media groups. Our team has already established contacts with seasonal migrant workers who are working on farms in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and will use these contacts to do the interviews in the first instance of the project. Due to the delay in the funding decision, for the picking season 2020, some interviews shall be conducted while the workers are in their post in UK, while others retrospectively. For 2021, more participants will be recruited at the same farms. Importantly, before the start of the 2021 picking season, the researchers will follow-up with those seasonal workers who have returned to Romania to explore their disposition to return to the UK and understand their main considerations in this regard. This will provide DEFRA with unique information about the future seasonal migrant worker supply.

WP2 – Qualitative Interviews British farmers (n=100 across 2020&2021) to identify different strategies in addressing labour shortages and how they went about to recruit migrants, what their labour needs for the ongoing seasons are and what are the challenges in recruiting, retaining and ensuring safe work during COVID19. Special attention will be given to those who recruit via the Seasonal Workers Pilot from Moldova (agencies based in Romania recruit from Moldova). Through the interviews we will also examine the experience with efforts to recruit British workers for seasonal work particularly through the Pick for Britain initiative. To get a sense of variations across the UK four nations, a sample of additional interviews will be conducted with farmers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (n=12). Before the start of the 2021 picking season the researchers will follow-up with those same farmers to explore how they recruitment strategies and expectations have changed before the start of the new season. This will also provide DEFRA with unique information for planning purposes.

WP3 – Analysis of statistical datasets on seasonal migration in order to understand the ‘new’ demand for data in the context of COVID-19. This analysis will inform future food security strategies, by putting emphasis on the need to collect and report specific information on seasonal work.

WP4 – Comparison of seasonal migration responses in Germany, Spain and the United States, three countries hit differently by the COVID-19 outbreak.