Fears of agricultural labour shortages as a result of Brexit have been a matter of fairly frequent comment in the press in the last few years. Critics argue that farmers depend on cheap migrant labour to harvest crops that British jobseekers are unwilling to take up, a particularly significant problem now with the institution of the Living Wage and increasing labour costs as a result.
In part, however, these portrayals reflect stereotypes about hard-working Poles vs lazy Britons. Rather than a question of relative national virtues the issue is one of economics. In the first place, farmers often recoup some of the wages paid by having migrant workers live on-site in caravan dormitories rented from the farmer – which one can’t do with local workers.
A number of other hidden charges, moreover, act as further ways in which migrant labourers are exploited. British applicants for picking jobs, meanwhile, are often discouraged from applying – or simply not considered when they do.
Fundamentally, Eastern European seasonal workers are willing to endure these conditions because British farms offer relatively high real wages. Yet this advantage is eroding. This is not merely due to a fall in the pound (itself not necessarily Brexit-related, though that’s a story for a different article). It also reflects ongoing economic development in Eastern Europe in the last couple of decades, concomitantly increasing local real wages.
Some of that increase in Eastern European wages is probably what’s driving increased labour prices in the UK. The National Farmers’ Union 2020 report on wage inflation, though blaming Brexit and the Living Wage for increases, actually shows growth in wage inflation beginning in 2015, before either of these took effect (see Table 3 p. 3).
Nonetheless, the fact remains that increased labour prices will have an impact on the economy. Given the EU’s recently-demonstrated penchant for targeted export controls, strong British food production is needed to reduce the UK’s vulnerability to potential alimentary blackmail.
The solution, however, is not to go back to depending on European migrant labour – itself as vulnerable to restriction, in principle, as food, and in the age of COVID a potential vector for disease. Rather, some measure of agricultural mechanisation, extra-European food imports, higher food prices, and state intervention are the necessary prices to pay for improved conditions for British workers, and a safer and more dependable food supply.
The author gratefully acknowledges the particular assistance of Gawain Towler and Peter Durnell in writing this article.