'They're left totally in the dark'

In part two of our series on rural poverty, we highlight the plight of migrant workers

Reading time: 10 min

Ahead of this year’s online Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival event this weekend (July 17-19), UniteLIVE earlier this week explored the issue of rural poverty – and what we can do to fight it.

Investment in infrastructure is key – the UK’s rural areas have long been victims of under-investment, with poor public transport links, subpar internet access and a general lack of affordable and decent housing all failing to attract the skills and businesses needed for economic success.

Widespread low wages, coupled with the high cost of living, has led to a rural exodus of young people to towns and cities.

But as the saying goes, “the true measure of society is how it treats its most vulnerable”. So any investigation of rural poverty would not be complete without consideration of those at the very bottom in rural economies – migrant workers, always low-paid and often exploited, who work in our nation’s farms and food factories.

Migrant workers ‘basically owned’ by agencies

Unite regional convenor Iulian Firea, who first moved to the UK from Romania to work at the 2 Sisters food processing plant in Wolverhampton, describes the plight of the rural migrant farm worker.

“Most migrant farm and food processing workers arrive in the UK with contracts through agencies,” he explains. “It means they sign their names on a paper and they’re basically owned. They live in crowded barracks, bungalows or caravans. They often live on or near the farm and they aren’t allowed to leave.

“Their salaries are set before leaving their home countries. The workers look at their contracts and see the rate for say, 48 hours a week, and they think, ‘well that’s reasonable’ because these salaries are far greater than what they would get in their home countries. They don’t realise it’s far below the going rate – they don’t know the rate they should receive, nor the training they should receive. They’re left totally in the dark.”

Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture Bev Clarkson adds that the accommodation migrant workers are forced into is often crowded and expensive.

“The conditions they live in are really horrific – you’ll have four to six people living in an on-site caravan that’s really cramped, and you’re charged £50 or £60 a week for the privilege,” she explains.

Both Bev and Iulian highlight the way in which migrant workers are totally trapped by their agency contracts. Agencies will set the price of not only accommodation that the workers are forced to accept, but because they are so isolated and often cannot leave site, the agencies will set the price of food, of laundry facilities and other very basic, substandard amenities – and this will all be deducted from workers’ wages.

“You’ll be charged for food, for transport if the accommodation is not near the workplace and even for a crappy laundry machine for example,” Bev notes. “These migrant workers should be paid the mandatory minimum wage but often in practice they aren’t because of all of these deductions. At the end they’re often left with very little, in some cases as little as £30 a week.”

Bev adds that migrant workers are often encouraged to work long, unsafe hours.

“You might be offered say £8 an hour, before all the deductions, for working an 8-hour shift but if you agree to work a 12-hour shift they’ll dangle an £11-an-hour carrot in front of you. Migrant farm workers are often also on piecework, so that they’ll be paid for a certain number of items they pick and anything above and beyond that they’ll be paid extra. But they’ll be set with impossible, unreachable targets that again encourages dangerously long working hours. We know that often the working time directive is not adhered to.”

Working through the pandemic

 Working through the pandemic is especially hard on migrant workers now, who face greater risk to their health because of their working and living conditions, where social distancing is often not observed. Earlier this week we highlighted the case of mostly migrant workers at a farm in Hereford, where 73 people have tested positive for Covid-19 and now all workers are self-isolating.

Workers on the AS Green and Co farm, which supplies broccoli, broad beans and runner beans to major UK supermarkets, reportedly face brutal working conditions.

Speaking to the Guardian, one of only three English female workers on the farm ‘Karen’, who quit because of the poor pay and working conditions, said that social distancing was not observed.

“I was isolated at the beginning but after that we were treated as one big household and you are all working together,” she said. “Everyone is living and working so close together that it’s not surprising that if anyone gets Covid, it will spread very fast, and now nearly half of them have got it.”

Karen noted how hard the farm pushes its workers, the vast majority of whom are from Romania or Bulgaria.

“People were punished for getting stuff wrong or being too slow. If you were slow you had to have a day off. It didn’t happen to me, but our whole line was sent home early one day.”

 Bev highlighted that the conditions at this particular farm are widespread across the sector, and noted how employers have taken advantage of government Covid-19 guidelines for their own selfish ends.

“When the prime minister first announced the ‘bubble’, where people from a single household could join together with another household during lockdown, it was meant for families to be able to see each other again, for grandparents to see their grandchildren. What I’ve been made aware of is on many farms, the workers are not allowed to leave the farms because they’re being told ‘this is the family bubble’.”

Greater regulation call

Both Bev and Iulian agree that to protect migrant workers and improve their pay and conditions, reinstating the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in England is vital. Before it was scrapped in England in 2013, the AWB ensured that farm workers received decent wages and also regulated other areas of farm work such as accommodation, to ensure workers weren’t trapped in cramped living conditions.

 “Reinstating the AWB will provide a vital safety net for migrant farm workers,” Iulian said. “They won’t be such easy prey for agencies, for rogue businesses. It will give migrant workers a level of trust in businesses here in the UK.”

Bev also highlights a greater need to ramp up overall regulation of agencies and the farms and food factories to which they supply labour.

“The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) may exist to protect migrant farm and food workers, but it doesn’t go far enough,” she said. “Many of these employers may have licenses through the GLAA – and they made sure they ticked all the boxes to get their licenses, but then there’s no follow-up after and these employers often then turn to appalling working practices with absolutely no regulatory oversight.”

Although it may be logistically difficult with the system we now have in place, Iulian believes farms should eventually work toward cutting out agencies altogether. He suggests the government could work with farms to directly advertise migrant worker needs abroad, in the same way, for example, holidays are advertised.

“Cutting out the middle man would allow workers to keep more of the money they’re earning through their own labour,” he said. “It would allow the farms and other companies employing migrant workers to have a stronger connection with their workforce, to maybe start apprenticeships and really invest in their workers. This builds a long-term, stable and skilled workforce that’s good for business.”

‘Our biggest challenge is access’

Bev notes that Unite faces many challenges in engaging migrant workers, not least of all because many are afraid that they will lose their jobs.

“It’s not that they don’t want to be part of the trade union – in fact many migrant workers come to this country in groups and so they know the value of collective solidarity. Our biggest challenge is access and we are constantly working to overcome this barrier.”

It may be easy to dismiss the plight of migrant workers when examining rural poverty in the UK and how to tackle it. But the evidence shows that migrant workers are a vital backbone of rural economies – a report from the IPPR think-tank found that far from increasing unemployment among native-born populations in rural areas, migrant workers take up hard-to-fill vacancies, and through this actually increase demand in rural areas and the number of jobs overall.

“As well as being workers, migrants are consumers — those who live in rural areas can increase demand in rural economies, which can increase the market for local firms,” the report noted. “When businesses succeed and expand they further increase demand within the economy. This means that even businesses and industries that do not employ migrants themselves can benefit from migration, leading to job creation throughout rural economies in the longer term.”

Bev agreed.

“If we improve the work and living standards for migrant farm workers, we improve the standards for all people living in our rural communities,” she said. “The food and agriculture sector has for too long been rife with exploitation of mainly migrant workers who live in appalling conditions and in practice work for wages far below the legal minimum wage. The only way we’ll eradicate rural poverty as a whole is if we take seriously the struggles of those at the very bottom.”

By Hajera Blagg

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