Page 9 - Farm labour in the UK
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Farms continued to struggle to source local labour
throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. A continuing reliance on a mixture of itinerant workers, women, and at one stage, children, ensured that the industry was able to continue harvesting crops to feed the
nation. For a period during the early 20th century, working-class families would travel to pick crops such as hops during the holidays. At other times, farmers relied on travellers, students and local workers where they were available. It was reported by one respondent of this study that, in some coastal areas, fishermen would help bring in the crops when seas were too rough to go out.
Following the Second World War, a Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme (SAWs) was introduced in the UK, allowing non-UK workers to work for a specified time on farms, most commonly horticultural units. By the time it was abolished, an annual quota of 21,250 workers was in place, enabling mostly Bulgarian and Romanian workers to fill seasonal agricultural positions across the country (Migration Advisory Committee 2013). The scheme was scrapped in 2013 because, according to the Home Office, ‘at a time of unemployment in the UK and the European Union there should be sufficient workers from within those labour markets to meet the needs of the horticultural industry’ (Home Office 2013:1).
While this was true, due to the increase in occupational mobility afforded to workers arriving from the EU, some farmers report their labour
“I’ve been here fifty [years] The last ten years we’ve seen very few what I would call ‘locals’, where I mean UK natives that live locally. Whereas we used to be able to get fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty a day”
(Farmer 2)
struggles as having begun with the abolition of the original SAWs scheme.
It has not only been seasonal positions which have lacked local workers in recent history. Newby (1977) talked about labour shortages having occurred in agriculture in England in the 1960s, when, ‘for almost the first occasion in peacetime, there appeared to be long term shortages in some categories of labour, particularly those possessing a high degree of skill in certain sectors like stock-breeding’ (1977:147). There was an exodus of workers from farming and rural communities known as a ‘drift from the land’, with some people pushed out of the industry due to the introduction of agricultural machinery, and others pulled away by the lure of new industries and job opportunities opening up in local towns. As a result, not only did most seasonal positions gradually become filled by migrant workers, due to the accessibility of the work to individuals from the EU, but a proportion of employing farmers also began to rely on non-domestic workers to fill some of the more permanent roles in agriculture.
The increasing reliance on migrant workers should be regarded alongside wider structural changes occurring in farming, particularly in terms of the increasing power of supermarkets, and the pressures that result from this in the overall supply chain (Heasman and Morley 2017). In simple terms, if farmers do not receive a sufficient price for their product, the effect of this will be passed down to their workers in terms of both work culture and pay.
Farm labour in the UK | Accessing the workforce the industry needs

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