I was intrigued to hear on BBC4’s Question Time from Spalding a member of the panel state with certainty that the need for a supply of migrant workers from Eastern Europe is essential for harvesting vegetables around Spalding, as British workers will not get up at five in the morning to start work, which is when they’re needed. By inference he was saying that British workers are lazy and don’t have a strong work ethic, while workers from Poland for example, can be relied on because they need the money. The message here seems to be that we only have ourselves to blame. So I began to wonder why it is that very few pupils in UK schools are encouraged to find work in agricultural settings.
There are plenty of disadvantages in working on the land. Where do you live? Probably in a rusty caravan at the back of the farmhouse, with inadequate facilties, sharing bunks with other men. How do you get to town on your days off? You can’t afford a car and the bus services have been scrapped. Either you walk, or you get a lift. Twenty miles from my house to the nearest large town in a taxi costs an arm and a leg. You’ll be lucky to be paid more than seven pounds an hour for back breaking work outside in all weathers. It’s physically demanding, exhausting and unrewarding work.
We could, of course, as a nation, ask students in lieu of course fees to put in a few weeks in the year of work on the land, as they do in Cuba. An ambitious student with a good work ethic could wind up fitter, with no student debt, if they played their cards right. If pay and conditions were better, and the recruiting business more targeted, more young British workers might be persuaded to take up seasonal work in the farms around Spalding. Do they lack motivation and a work ethic? I’m afraid a good many do, but for some it's not even considered as a worthwhile occupation. Personally I’m just glad there’s someone out there willing to get up at the crack of dawn to cut my cauliflowers in rain and mud for the minimum wage, sleep in a squalid caravan and be the target of racists in the town where I do my shopping on my day off.
In the past, families of travellers (who called themselves gypsies or Romanies in those days) came to the same farm every year to work. They worked hard, were reliable and were welcomed back, despite signs on the pub doors saying 'No Pikeys'. The closest I've been to agricultural work was hop picking and hay making, but I have a deep respect for those people who brave our weather and hostility to work in our agricultural and food processing industries, wherever they come from.
We can’t have it both ways, as my mother used to say.
In my Ebook, Unconfirmed Reports From Out There, there is a story titled 'Romanians' which deals with this issue from another viewpoint.