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Listening to the Voice of the Migrant Workers

From a presentation at
20:20 Vision for the Countryside; March 2004

There are around 75,000 migrants who work on at least 25% of the vegetable and salad products produced in this country. Of these around 50% are managed by 'gangmasters', who now prefer to be called 'labour providers'. Mostly these are good legal employers, but not all.

We need to consider how our food is produced. We have had migrant workers in this country for centuries, but pricing structures now force farmers to employ migrant workers.

The number of student migrant workers is rising . In 1996 there were 5,000. Now there are 25,000, of whom 15,000 are in Lincolnshire alone at any one time. Most of them are seasonal workers. The speaker interviewed many workers, but for obvious reasons it is difficult to meet the illegal workers and to address their needs.

Migrant workers (people with no rights of residency here) are a vulnerable section of society with little social protection. Social policy must drive economic policy, not meet the needs of the rich. Mass production however leads to mass thinking, which is a challenge to us with regards to the needs of the individual.

Legal migrant workers tend to live in camps, which have basic rules:- cleaning rotas; sandwiches/refreshments to be taken to the field; lodging fees to be paid; deposits (10) to be paid for waterproofs; deductions for breakages. No-one tells them the cost of living and accommodation costs are generally in the region of 35-50 per week. Most are working, officially, 9-11 hour days on minimum wage. Of the population of working age in this country 3.6 million (10%) are foreign born, many from Poland and Turkey. (The illegal gangmasters are turning increasingly to Africa to find workers.) It has been estimated that 150 million people are working outside of their country of origin, and this figure includes nurses (13%), doctors (31%), and those in universities, schools etc as well as agriculture. Here, when their work permits run out many (10%) just disappear - where to??Many too have health problems such as AIDS.

By 2005 over 1/3 of EU regions will experience a diminishing workforce. Education will take an increasing number of 16/18 year olds out of work possibly until they are 30. Less people will be available for work which creates an even greater need for a migrant workforce. There will also be less people without 'qualifications', so less people to fill certain jobs. This again is creating a need for migrant workers otherwise there will be no food on the supermarket shelves. We need to value them and see them as people with needs, instead of numbers without names, used as a commodity, living in a paternalistic system which might send them home with 3000 after 6 months work if they are lucky.

The workers themselves speak of problems within the (legal) system, and if this has problems whatever happens to the illegal workers?

  • Guidelines for rent are broken, debts are often incurred to get here, and there is a general lack of information to help workers.They have no opportunities to meet others; it is difficult to communicate with their families; they do not know our driving laws, health and safety rules etc. Where is the pastoral support for them?
  • The casualisation of the workforce (Called flexibalisation) brings cheap workers, but for how long will it go on?
  • How will the level of 'just in time' delivery to supermarkets be sustained as Eastern European conditions improve and they don't need these jobs anymore?
  • What about racist attitudes?
  • How do we address the ignorance of the need of, or availability of health insurance?
  • What about poor housing conditions with 20 to a house, 8 to a caravan meant for half that tnumber or less?

Some firms are taking responsibility for their workers and are setting up agencies abroad and approved accomodation here.

What can the churches do?

Charity work has uncovered a migrant workers subculture that is a Dickensian situation. One church has provided a safe meeting place for workers with access to officials, and to computers - to aid communication home. Other issues raised are:-
  • on border controls, (more people are deported from Lincolnshire than London);
  • on pressures on employers which lead/force them to cut corners;
  • the rise of the BNP
There needs to be
  • dialogue with the supermarkets, perhaps with boycott as the ultimate weapon;
  • discussion with the Department of Trade and Industry on how to ethically and morally track and certify products;
  • engagement with the WTO, who should be checking such things but who have a different agenda at present - liberalisation rather than fair trade.

Notes from 'Listening to the Voice of the Migrant Workers:
20:20 Vision for the Countryside; March 2004

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See also:- Gangmasters

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