Our food supply chain both relies on seasonal agricultural workers and systematically abuses them. Covid-19 has only made this more flagrant.
Over the past few months, the institutions and systems that regiment our day-to-day lives have been dealt an unprecedented blow. In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis acted as a ‘great revealer’, uncovering and exacerbating existing fragilities in our governmental, healthcare, and even transportation systems. The agricultural production system, the set of resources and processes of our food chain, was one of them.
Seasonal agricultural workers have long remained a vital but unspoken part of our agricultural system. At harvest time, many producers need an additional set of seasonal workers ready to perform extremely labour-intensive tasks, as they are able to harvest fruits and vegetables without damaging them in a way that machines cannot. The intensity of the work is further exacerbated by the just-in-time system used by many wholesalers that these farmers supply, which means that there are periods of relatively unpredictable rushes that require workers to live on-site. Seasonal migrant workers have long filled these labour shortages, earning enough wages to support their families back home and returning after the season. However, these workers were blocked at the frontiers because of COVID-19 and much of the Northern hemisphere was faced with the prospect of immense food shortages and rotting fields.
As a consequence, many governments decided to compromise their own measures and recommendations to remedy to the worker shortage.
Public health measures such as 14-day quarantine periods were cancelled, leaving employers responsible for the “enforcement of proper social distancing rules”.
These rules are rendered useless when the accommodation of seasonal migrant workers consists of portacabins or caravans that sleep two to six people to one room. The hypocrisy of recommending the enforcement of social distancing without any further supervision or resources to enforce and accommodate these changes did not go undetected for long. Over the course of the summer, Spain was plagued with clusters of COVID-19 cases in agricultural regions which effectively revived the pandemic as its first wave was slowing in the country. The pandemic revealed yet another way in which the people that feed us are a casualty of our governments’ failures to remedy unsustainable practices in agriculture.
It is beyond the scope of this article to render an exhaustive account of governmental attempts and failures to revise the fragilities of our food supply chains. The definition of seasonal agricultural worker is already contentious, as it encompasses an enormous range of experiences ranging from Brazilian workers migrating to the south of the country to harvest sugar cane, to the 300,000 workers from eastern European countries that harvest the German fields. These workers create economic and social ties within agricultural systems from one end of the world to the other. For example,e in Sweden 71% of seasonal berry pickers hail from Thailand. However, it is possible to see how our current food supply chain systematically disadvantages seasonal workers by examining the situation in the United Kingdom.
The pressure of low prices, the just-in-time system and decreasing margins impacts all the players in the food supply chain, but they all combine to create almost unliveable working conditions for seasonal workers.
The UK government has done very little and its response has been plagued by bureaucratic and lobbying problems. As of 2016, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which conducts farm inspections for health and safety standards, no longer has jurisdiction over labour rights, and these infractions are instead inspected by the Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA). This means the running of farms is viewed as separate from the health and labour conditions of its workers. That responsibility has now been handed over to a less-funded GLAA that was unable to complete any investigations into persistent noncompliance across all industries in 2018-19. This leaves very little government oversight of labour rights abuses, letting farmers, and the gangmasters who supply them, to act with complete impunity.
This is further compounded by the government’s devolved regulations on agricultural workers’ salaries, a policy that came to be after considerable pressure from the NFU agribusiness lobby. Seasonal agricultural workers were protected by the Agricultural Wages Board, which granted them minimum rates of pay higher than the National minimum wage, paid holidays, sick pay, night work pay and also 30-minute breaks if they worked for more than 5 hours and half. After the defunding of the Agricultural Wages Board in 2013, these workers have been stripped of all these guarantees except that of being paid the national minimum wage, from which the cost of accommodation on the farm can be further deducted. Seasonal agricultural workers are left to work brutal hours of heavy manual labour without any pay or healthcare safeguards, living in overcrowded quarters, and all of this with little government oversight of noncompliance.
While the causes of the abuse of seasonal agricultural workers start at the consumer level with the push for lower prices, these same consumers have remained more or less blissfully unaware of the abuses which allow UK-grown fruits and vegetables to arrive on their tables. These labour and human rights abuses have taken place for decades and have arguably accelerated in the past decade. But it is only with the onset of supermarket shortages and rotting fields that consumers and the government realised that these workers were not expendable. Now that they have, better actions need to be taken to reform an unsustainable agricultural system.
There is no single measure which will solve all these issues, but first and foremost, agricultural workers themselves need to be given greater platforms for their voices, allowed to unionize and create workers’ interest groups to express what they need and provide a counter to the agricultural lobbies that have pushed for farmers’ interests in government.
Another measure which might help is the encouragement of the vertical integration of the food supply chain. One of the chief reasons for farmers’ exploitation of seasonal workers is that they themselves are under enormous pressure by wholesalers and supermarkets to provide considerable amounts of food in irregular patterns with very low margins because these wholesalers take a cut of the price for themselves. Cutting out players within the supply chain, providing governmental, financial and consumer incentives for these farmers to create their own markets, or find alternative channels for their products might relieve some of these pressures. The current food supply chain functions the way it does to fulfill consumers’ standards of quality versus price. To change it, consumers need to actively engage in learning about the externalities of their eating habits beyond the labels and prices on the product, to seek the hidden flaws which make the difference between sustainable and unsustainable agriculture, and demand that these flaws be fixed.
Art by Holly Brown