Guy’s news: Cheap food, dignity & Victorian working practices

Our Polish worker Martin arrived 20 years ago with a tent and a guitar. He came back the following summer with some friends, and the farm has become increasingly dependent on eastern European workers ever since. I am frequently asked how we will cope post-Brexit if there are no new migrants; the answer is it will be tough, but not impossible. There will be lots of restructuring in food and farming, bringing opportunities for new entrants and smaller, more human-scale businesses; something I welcome. The relentless march to scale, whether on fruit farms or in poultry slaughterhouses, has been facilitated by the availability of compliant ‘operatives’ who don’t question or complain and are therefore deemed to be happy. They are not; they have the same human needs for decent housing, dignity and respect as the rest of us, but simply have fewer options. Cheap food has too often come at the cost of a return to Victorian working practices. There are exceptions, but it has been too easy to be a bad employer in an industry I sometimes feel ashamed to be part of.

Today non-UK staff, mostly Romanian, Polish, Lithuanian and Slovakian, make up around 35% of our staff at Riverford (the norm in horticulture is closer to 90%); they have made a huge contribution. Most started as seasonal field workers, and the majority return home after a season or two, while some have married, put down roots and worked their way up through the business.

Field work is unbelievably tough for those who have not experienced it. Hours in the gym will not prepare you for the endurance required; it takes at least a month for a fit and able body to become field-hardened. I used to do 60 hours a week but I couldn’t hack it now. It is a good guiding principle to avoid asking others to do what you wouldn’t do yourself. While the commonly heard farmers’ bleat that “Brits just don’t want the work” is largely true, they should spend more time asking themselves why and what they could do to make the jobs more attractive. I for one will not be lobbying for agriculture to be a “special case”; I almost relish the challenge of attracting and retaining staff in a post-Brexit UK. It will force us to do things we probably should be doing anyway.

Guy Watson

15 responses to “Guy’s news: Cheap food, dignity & Victorian working practices

  1. Bravo, that man! We will need a new minister for Agriculture!

  2. How good to hear a farmer being positive for a change instead of bemoaning his lot. Yes, I know it is hard work battling against bad weather and disease, but it is not the only industry that has these problems. Go Guy! The only way with Brexit is to grab it by the throat and not give in. Surely this is the attitude that makes Brits great?

  3. Mr. Benjamin Frost

    Bravo! Great to hear optimism about Brexit. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    Thank you for bringing back the British vegetable box. Maybe we could have a British fruit box or bag?

  4. Wise and thought-provoking words, as ever, Guy.

  5. Well said. I have often wondered about the conditions of your field workers, and am very grateful to them for the lovely food I have been eating for years.Not sure if I should be enquiring more deeply into the working conditions they live with. For example, what proportion of your workers are on the minimum wage? I assume none are below it….

  6. I have made this observation in my life that the majority of voices is not always the wisest decision and once You know better there is nothing wrong about changing Your mind.
    From the bottom of my heart.

    • Christine Godwin

      Iwona – the majority was very small, and it was wrong. I hope, like you, that there will be no hard Brexit. We all need each other. Please don’t think that you are not valued here.

  7. Lesley Somerville

    You are so right on this – cheap labour encourages poor working practices and as consumers it’s time we started paying ‘real’ prices for the goods we often so thoughtlessly consume and/or throw away. Maybe then we would value them more. Devaluing human endeavour at any level is never a good thing.

  8. This is why I’m happy to pay a bit extra for my veg – they are quality AND I can support the direction farming should go. Farmers can make the job more attractive and we need to be more realistic. The worst thing that ever happened to farming was to create the word agribusiness and lose sight of the connections it has to anyone who eats food – oops, that’s all of us…

  9. So encouraging to read this Guy – thanks

  10. Christine Godwin

    It’s a brave business that can face losing 35% of its valued workforce. We have always assumed that Riverford’s workers are treated with respect – what is going to happen to these people if they are no longer allowed to work in the UK? False optimism helps no-one. We need to stand together in Europe – I grew up in the shadow of WW2, and no-one should take the peaceful years since then for granted. My generation has had the freedom to travel freely, to live and work in Europe, to understand our neighbours; will my grandchildren have the same good fortune? Please say no to little-England xenophobia!

  11. I applaud you view. It was a delight to read your news. Growing up as a child in Angus I enjoyed the occasional tattie heukin’ “holidays”. I understand the need for casual, seasonal, labour in agriculture. From working closely in farming communities in Worcestershire and Cambridgeshire, I do not like what amounts to the abuse of overseas labour permitted, indeed encouraged, under the EU. Weather EU lovers like it or not, EU laws produced despair within many UK agricultural communities, which was not xenophobic, it arose from knowledge of being ignored and overlooked. Yet agricultural economics have always been abusive, providing cheaper and cheaper food for customers who do not understand agriculture and the market (particularly supermarket) purchasing forces and care not a hoot for the workers. I agree, we pay far too little for our food but the EU made such economics worse at the expense of the UK agricultural worker, the same people who are further abused in turning away from such work, as some farmers claim, whilst others call them racists or “little Englanders” in opposing what amounts to the importation of alternative exploitable cheap labour through the EU. The sort of thing Guy’s ashamed of. There’s no political idealism attached to this “freedom”. Unless movement is free, it’s exploitation. Martin, above, appears free. In my experience many, I’d say most overseas workers, are not and I’ve talked with lots of them from Poland to Rumania. Yet, it’s odd. You will find British visitors to Australia working as casual labour in the same way as Eastern Europeans over here and wouldn’t they like to be out of the UK as much as they’re Europeans counterparts would like to be in the UK. Oddly enough, they’re treatment is subject to the same criticism. . What a world! But get real and be human. p.s. Diner in the Cambridge was a delight.

  12. This is all well and good, of course, but I wonder if Guy’s tone will be quite as bullish once Brexit starts hitting the pockets of those who buy the produce, as it undoubtedly will – restructuring can be demand-side too, after all…

  13. Well said, Guy. I respect your views

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