One of the consequences of Brexit often visited by the media is the future of fruit and vegetable harvesting. The reporting comes in two stripes. The anti-Brexit media report the downsides of course. In a nutshell the 'hostile environment' created by the Tories towards foreigners and Brexit uncertainty has deterred immigrants from EU countries filling the seasonal vacancies in the industry. There are many reports of fruit rotting on the ground and farmers fearing they will be driven out of business completely or forced to relocate abroad. Then there is the Brexit positive media who claim this is all scaremongering. They report on the job opportunities for picking fruit in Britain soaring e.g. "£700 per week job boom" says 'The Sun'. Another common theme in the pro-Brexit media are reports about the development of fruit and veg picking robots, so clearly there is a fall-back in case Britain's youth don't care to relocate to a field in East Anglia to pick strawberries in July.
I've never picked fruit commercially myself. Well I owned a small-holding in Spain for a couple of years but apart from trading several tree-loads of olives to the local co-operative in exchange for virgin oil, I never sold anything, nor was I paid.
However that wasn't the norm for my ancestors. A friend of mine who is a whiz at these things came to stay for a few weeks and her parting gift was a family tree going back to 1740. For generation after generation my forebears were agricultural labourers.
I knew my grandfather was a farm labourer but not that the entire stock of my family were so as well, male and female. All lived and worked in the same village, Froxfield Hants for centuries. Grandfather Alfred though was a little different. He moved where the work was, over some considerable distance.
My father Edmund was born in Tolworth, Surrey in 1908. He told me he didn't see his father very often when growing up. Alfred did seasonal work which meant he was away for much of the year. One month he would be hop-picking in Kent, another harvesting turnips in Suffolk and so forth. Money was good when Alfred came back and my father and his seven brothers and sisters ate well. However one year, Alfred did not return. This was before the welfare state remember, there were no benefits to take care of single mothers with eight children, so the siblings who could work did, while my father and his younger brother George were found a place in Bizley Farm School, a charitable institution for borders, where the children would tend crops, manufacture wickerwork baskets, produce honey, cheese and so forth all of which was sold to pay for their farm education.
Dad also picked fruit but he did so to survive. In good old Dickensian manner, the children at the school were largely fed on bowls of gruel, apart from Easter when they were treated to a boiled egg. My father and his friends therefore foraged in the countryside scrumping whatever fruit and veg they could find. They would trap birds, game, pigeons etc. A particular favourite was a hedgehog rolled in mud and cooked on a bonfire. It is a sobering thought that this is not a fairy tale from long ago - this is the real story of my father and these events took place less than a century ago.
Anyway, I didn't think too much about picking fruit again until in 2003 when my wife and I moved to Spain. We bought a country house in a small inland village in the north west of Murcia which is very much an agricultural economy. We became friendly with many of the local farmers and after a time, a picture of the black economy emerged. Fruit picking is obviously an activity where time is of the essence. As a crop is about to ripen, people have to be there in numbers not required throughout the rest of the year. In a somewhat 'backward' area of Spain at this time (by which I mean few people had email), there was an unspoken seasonal tradition. Come say, June, the apricots would ripen. A convoy of battered cars would arrive full of itinerant fruit pickers as if out of nowhere. At six in the morning the 'workforce' would gather at a point on the edge of town, and farmers would haggle to get the amount of workers they need at the lowest price. These people were working in black money so they would invariably earn below minimum wage, perhaps two to three euros per hour. After a twelve hour day in the blazing sun the workers would return to their cars, which were normally parked near the river where they could bathe and wash their clothes. This is tough work too. An Ecuadorian woman of my acquaintance appeared one day with her hand in a sling. When I enquired she said she had slipped from a tree and sliced off her little finger. She shrugged and said live goes on, explaining she needed return to work quickly to continue sending money back to her family.
As far as I could gather, the itinerant labourers in Spain have a similar lot to my grandfather. They move about, not just in Spain but in other EU countries, providing work where it is needed, often (mostly as far as I could see) in black money. There seemed to be a mix of Moroccans, Bulgarians and South Americans, all of whom had the common thread of being so far down the food chain they never get out of the black money trap.
However I have since seen another class of migrant workers in Spain with much better terms and conditions. Indigenous Spanish who are already in the system get much better 'gigs'. I knew a builder, a very industrious chap called 'ni' (short for Antonio) who would go to Switzerland each summer picking grapes, for which he got good money, stamp paid for etc. I understand that the building trade is quiet in Spain during the summer months so this is a popular way for workers who would otherwise be picking up unemployment to get some good money in. Now the Spanish unemployment money is not bad anyway so for this to be the case I reckon the Swiss money must be pretty good. I've heard of similar schemes where town halls in Spain organize groups of people to go fruit picking in France and Italy, again on legal money that is high enough to make it worthwhile. One woman told me she will be doing three months at 3000 euros per month and she will be taking most of that home.
What these subjective, personal and somewhat random observations suggest to me is the future of the farming of fruit and vegetables in Britain is this. With Britain leaving the EU I see it as unlikely that the lot of fruit-pickers in Britain will get any better. On the 19 December 2019 the Johnson government published a revised version of the EU withdrawal agreement
which no longer contains clauses on the protection of EU-derived workers’ rights. Robots aside (fruit picking robots are a long way from being viable
), a demand for fruit pickers (which has apparently gone from four fruit pickers to each job to four jobs for each fruit-picker
) will inevitably drive up wages, so I doubt the British supermarkets will accept the corresponding increase in the price of produce required by farmers for their operations to remain profitable. There are therefore two ways this could go. Either the government will takes steps to make the environment for the unemployed so unpleasant that they will be induced to chase low paid agricultural work to avoid starvation as my ancestors did, or alternative suppliers to British farms will fill the void on the supermarket shelves. The countries that may gain the most out of the latter are non-EU countries with low labour costs that are not the other side of the world and have climates that suit agricultural production. The British government has already had preliminary talks with several North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and these may well be smart places for investment in a post-Brexit economy.