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4 Jun 2021

Jokubas Salyga, Jacobin

UK: Seasonal workers are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 as labour conditions & exploitation worsen

"In Britain, Seasonal Farm Laborers Toil for Subminimum-Wage Piece Rates", 4 June 2021

Last spring, the pandemic caught European farming businesses and governments unprepared. As travel restrictions were hurriedly introduced, EU bureaucrats understood that seasonal migrant laborers were indeed “essential workers” — notwithstanding their low pay and exploitative conditions. Emergency measures were taken to secure the harvest and food supply, with migrant-regularization measures and ad hoc visa extensions that would have been inconceivable in “normal” times.

While this impromptu legislation partially weathered the storm, there were still shortages. Meanwhile, employers’ disregard for COVID-19 precautions — coupled with absent enforcement capacities — itself spread the virus. German farms and meat processing plants became infection hotspots, with similar outbreaks among crop pickers in Herefordshire and Tayside (Britain), Lleida and Murcia (Spain), Mondragone and Reggio Calabria (Italy), and elsewhere. Nonetheless, 2020 ended with triumphant rhetoric from European institutions, celebrating both the rapid development of vaccines and increased preparedness for a forthcoming harvesting season...

...But by far the most pressing situation is unfolding in the UK’s horticulture, which already before Brexit depended on seventy thousand seasonal laborers — most of them Eastern Europeans. With the termination of free movement between the UK and the EU last December, agro-capital is forced to rely on a haphazardly designed Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme. At the time of writing, this scheme still lacks one operator and caps the number of temporary workers too low at thirty thousand. The pilot also reconfigures the composition of the “imported laborers” — further worsening their exploitation...