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The UK government has blinked. For months, ministers have refused to cede to the meat and transport industries’ pleas for access to migrant workers, telling them sternly they should raise pay and conditions to attract locals instead. Now, with food and fuel shortages growing, they have promised visas for 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers.
Who will want these short-term visas, which expire on Christmas Eve? It’s unlikely workers from the EU will queue up. As Tomasz Oryński, a Polish truck driver and journalist, told me: “Why would you want to go to Britain, jump all these hoops, face all this hostile environment, if you could go to Ireland or Holland and earn more, be respected, drive on nicer motorways with nice truck stops, and be a free European citizen not a second-class citizen?”
It seems more likely that visa applicants will come from further afield, licence rules permitting. This has proved the case for the UK’s “seasonal worker pilot,” which issues six-month visas to people to pick fruit and vegetables on British farms. The top four source countries so far have been Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova. Some have come from as far as Nepal and Barbados.
Temporary migration schemes have a long history, from the US Bracero programme for Mexican farm workers between the 1940s and 1960s to Germany’s Gastarbeiter programme in the 1960s. There are modern versions in Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere. Advocates say they can be a “win win”: employers get access to workers; migrants get better opportunities.
But it’s not always that simple. It is common for migrant workers to borrow money to pay for visas, transport and recruitment fees, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation. In addition, unlike under the EU’s free movement of labour, they are usually tied to a specific employer or recruiter which makes it hard for them to leave if they are treated poorly. As a result, the schemes can exacerbate poor pay and conditions in some sectors and calcify employers’ dependence on migrants. One study by the US Economic Policy Institute concluded: “We cannot point to one historical example in which a temporary labour shortage has been remedied with a temporary labour migration programme, and then employers returned to hiring local workers.” A favourite aphorism of migration experts is that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary migration programme.
Early indications from the UK fruit picker pilot support some of these concerns. Earlier this year, when a colleague and I investigated the scheme, we spoke to indebted workers from Russia and Belarus who felt trapped on farms which were not giving them enough work, but whose recruitment agencies would not agree to move them to a different employer. And while the government still says it wants farmers to hire local workers, it has expanded the visa pilot from 2,500 to 30,000 workers.
None of this was inevitable. If the government had really wanted to improve the quality of jobs in the food and transport sectors, it could have done so regardless of Brexit. It could have followed the example of the Netherlands, where employers and unions agree to sectoral agreements which put a floor on pay and conditions. It also could have beefed up its woeful enforcement of existing labour market laws.
After the Brexit vote in 2016, the government could have started planning for life without low-paid migration. It could have done all the things it is doing now in a blind panic, such as promising free training courses for HGV licences. Ministers could also have tackled the power imbalance in the food supply chain which puts relentless pressure on labour costs.
No one predicted the pandemic, which exacerbated the staff shortage, but it wasn’t hard to predict that some action would be needed regardless. Two weeks after the Brexit vote, I wrote about how these sectors would struggle to cope with the end of free movement, given the supermarkets’ demands for speed, flexibility and low prices. “We wouldn’t eat without eastern Europeans,” a temp agency boss told me then.
We could have stayed in the EU and improved pay and conditions in these sectors. We could have left the EU and improved pay and conditions in these sectors. But the government insisted we would “have our cake and eat it” rather than acknowledge trade-offs and plan for them. This has precipitated a crisis which may mean the country ends up reliant on low-paid migrant workers after all — just different ones, who are even more vulnerable to exploitation. If there is any cake left, I don’t know who’s eating it.