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A People’s Food Policy, Labour

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Valuing work and improving social conditions[edit]

‘It is so incredibly hard to make a living producing food on a small scale. The cost of hand labour on the land is prohibitive, forcing producers to embrace technologies (both mechanical and chemical) that they may well know are detrimental to long-term production. Small farmers cannot compete in the marketplace with subsidised food from large producers/importers. If there was more financial return available for our product we could pay for skilled labour allowing our food to reach far more local households.’

NIKKI GILES FlintShare CSA Ltd (A People’s Food Policy consultation)

‘Of prime importance is the need for recognition of the importance of smaller food producers and the contribution they make to sustainability. Small producers of whatever ilk survive despite policy rather than because of it. Many of those who have access to land still have to go out and earn some money offfarm to survive. Improvement of viability is vital and this would need more labour (our own or volunteers’) and some capital for investment.’

PETER SAMSOM Deneburn Meadows (A People’s Food Policy consultation)

‘The depressed price of food makes the task of making a livelihood a labour of love and financially precarious.’

RU LITHERLAND Market Gardener, Organiclea (A People’s Food Policy consultation)

‘The food system has long failed to value the skills and knowledge of farmers, growers and agricultural workers.’

JULIE PORTER Former Market Gardener (A People’s Food Policy consultation)

‘We need strong protections for producers and suppliers at all levels of the food supply chain, particularly the earliest stages, to prevent abuses of power by large manufacturers and retailers. We also need strong protections for workers involved in food production, particularly migrant labour used in agriculture.’

KIERRA BOX Friends of the Earth (A People’s Food Policy consultation)

Our vision[edit]

Our vision is of a future in which a healthy and thriving food system supports the wellbeing, social welfare and economic stability of people working in it.

In this future, everybody works in a safe and healthy environment, free from all forms of exploitation, discrimination, racism and immigration control. Workers have the right to secure contracts and are guaranteed fair political and union representation, including through sector collective bargaining. This includes, but is not limited to, farmers, seasonal and migrant agricultural workers, and workers in processing, distribution, retail and catering.

Changes to taxation, trade policy, supply chains and procurement contracts now support vibrant livelihoods for farmers and workers across the food system. All food and agricultural businesses can afford to pay at least living wages both to themselves and their employees.

There has been at least a doubling of the agricultural labour force, who have had access to education and training opportunities. A massive expansion in organic horticulture has created many jobs, which are popular due to the skilled and varied work they entail. /144

People are able to work with dignity, respect and security. Workers in the food and farming sector are no longer classed as unskilled labourers. Instead, their work and knowledge about how to produce, process and prepare food is respected and valued.

We collectively understand that without farmers and food workers, there is no food. What we eat is no longer separated from the rights of the people that produce our food, here and around the world.

The case for change[edit]

Work in the food and farming sector is currently characterised by precarious and unpredictable labour conditions. The knowledge, skills and labour of food and agricultural workers are the foundations of our food system, and yet we do not currently have a system where people’s work is respected, valued and celebrated. Across England, farmers and seasonal and migrant labourers struggle to find work in environments that are secure, safe and adequately paid. The sector is increasingly made up of a labour force faced with long hours, low wages, and short-term contracts. Today, over one million people work on zero-hours contracts across the UK, /145 leading to the current investigation by the House of Lords Work and Pensions Committee into the ‘gig economy’. /146

The rights and conditions of agricultural workers in the UK have been reduced over the last 40 years. Farm businesses are under severe economic pressure, and have been forced to cut costs wherever possible. Since 2000, the overall agricultural labour force has dropped by almost 20%, /147 due to automation, a more temporary and seasonal work force, and the unsustainable levels of food imports which rely on an external workforce. /148 The loss of supportive structures, (e.g. the Milk Marketing Board), means farmers in some sectors struggle to sell their produce above the cost of production. This has created a race to the bottom in labour costs and standards, while at the same time driving the demand for more ‘flexible’ seasonal and part-time work. The financial insecurity, pressures and growing isolation in farming have resulted in agriculture carrying one of the highest rates of suicide of any occupation, /149 with on average one farmer a week in England or Wales taking their own life. /150

The average age of a farmer is now 59 years, /151 [1] and there are few opportunities for young people to enter into secure and financially viable agriculture professions. The low pay and a negative cultural attitude towards farm work has acted as a powerful disincentive to young people considering a career in agriculture.

Agricultural work is dangerous. Whilst 13.5% of the labour force work in the food sector, /152 less than 1% in England are currently employed in agriculture and fishing. /153 However, this industry accounts for 19% of fatal injuries. /154

Poor working conditions are compounded by low pay. The low incomes generated by farming are well-documented, especially so if one excludes subsidy payments. Numerous farms only survive by ‘diversifying’ into tourism or construction, but this does not help farming to remain a strong sector.

England is now the only UK nation without an Agricultural Wages Board, after the Westminster government abolished it in 2013. [2] Since then, pay and conditions for workers have worsened. Wages across the food system are below the UK average. /155 The price volatility of agricultural products on both the domestic and international market creates significant uncertainty and precarious conditions for food workers and farmers (see Chapter 8: Trade).

Women working in the food system don’t have enough opportunity, support and security, and are most affected by welfare cuts. /159 Across the food and farming industry, a disproportionate number of women work in underpaid, insecure, part-time roles in the food sector, while men disproportionately take up the managerial positions. /160 In 2015, 60% of students studying agriculture and related subjects were women, /161 indicating that there are a higher portion of women in agricultural training than actually working in food and farming. While women make up just over 25% of the agricultural workforce, /162 of the 96% of holdings in England that are owned by ‘sole holders’, the holders are predominately male. 84% of holders are men and only 16% are women, /163 and only 2% of them are women under 35 years. /164

While women make up over 50% of family labour, non-family agricultural work employs only 24% women, and the majority work on small farms. /165 The gender imbalance is significantly higher in the UK compared to other parts of Europe, where there is a far more equal distribution between men and women working in agriculture and owning their holdings, in particular small to medium farms. /166

Union protection has been continuously eroded and the UK now has the most restrictive trade union laws across Europe. /167 In 2016, the Conservative government’s Trade Union Act was passed into Royal Assent, introducing changes in legislation including a 50% threshold for ballot turn out and an additional threshold of 40% of support to take industrial action from all members eligible to vote in key public sectors. /168

Almost 50% of the food we import and eat here is grown and harvested by an overseas labour force working to produce export crops, with over 70% of our fruit and vegetables coming from Europe. /171 [3] We have a trade pattern where the UK exports products that require low levels of labour and imports products that require high levels of labour from overseas (see Chapter 2 Food).

There is well-documented abuse and exploitation of overseas food and agricultural labourers who are forced to work in appalling and exploitative conditions to produce food we eat here in England, /172 including the recent (but not isolated) cases of Romanian women working as seasonal workers being sexually and physically abused on the farms they worked on in Italy. /173 However, in practice there are currently no effective procedures embedded in UK international procurement contracts to ensure that labour standards for overseas workers offer guaranteed rights, legal representation and protection.

Here in the UK, agriculture relies more heavily than most other industries on a seasonal labour force that faces an increasingly uncertain future. Each year up to 80,000 seasonal workers come to the UK from EU countries to work on farms, /174 while almost 35,000 non-UK workers are employed in UK farming on a permanent basis. /175 [4] The horticulture sector, which accounts for under 3% of total agricultural production, /176 requires the highest rate of labour per hectare, /177 employing over half of all seasonal and casual agricultural workers, /178 and is heavily reliant on seasonal labour from the EU.

In 2013, the UK government ended both the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme and the Sectors Based Scheme, which previously supplied labour to the food processing sector. Since then, there have been no government policies introduced to secure the rights of EU citizens from the European Economic Area (EEA) working in agriculture and the food sector in England.

There have been many incidents of failure to protect the rights and welfare of seasonal and migrant workers here in the UK. Several recent high profile court cases have investigated farm businesses and gangmasters in England for suspected cases of modern-day slavery and the exploitation of migrant workers. /179 A report into forced labour in the UK food industry documented widespread incidences of debt bondage, bullying, withholding of wages, excessive workplace surveillance and overcrowded substandard accommodation. /180 Social housing, in-work benefits and sick pay, and maternity leave are severely restricted for non-EU migrants.

Over past two decades, EU citizens in the UK have seen restrictions on their rights of access to welfare and other social assistance in comparison to their British counterparts. /181 Non-EU migrants often have no access to this social assistance, including in-work benefits. /182 This places migrant workers in an increasingly precarious situation. In practice, this erosion of rights is currently targeted at, and seriously impacts, people from Eastern Europe living and working here. /183

There has been been a decline in the seasonal EU migrant work force since the EU referendum in June 2016, /185 due to increasing uncertainty, the rise of xenophobia, /186 and the fall in value of the British pound. /187 With the rights of EU nationals facing an increasingly precarious future and a potential repeal of freedom of movement, it is predicted that Brexit will heavily impact the agriculture industry and the rights of seasonal workers from Europe. /188

The industrialisation of our food system has profoundly changed the very nature of what it means to be a food producer and food provider. These realities pose huge threats to the future of food security in England. With the steady erosion of the agricultural labour force, and the knowledge that comes with it, the ability to meet our food needs now and in the future is in jeopardy. Agriculture and food workers must no longer be dismissed as unskilled labourers and we must move beyond seeing the food system as a simple service provision. The social conditions, knowledge, skills and labour of food and agricultural workers are the foundations of our food system.

Policy proposals[edit]

5.1 Support and adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas /189[edit]

5.1.1 The UK must support the process for a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, providing a framework to protect the rights of farmers to their land, seeds, biodiversity, decent income and livelihood and means of production.

5.1.2 Based on the guidelines in the declaration, England must take the relevant steps to incorporate the protection and realisation of the human rights of farmers and agricultural workers into its legislative framework.

5.1.3 Brexit negotiations should be used as an opportunity to secure stronger rights and protections for people from the UK, EU, and non-EU countries who work here as both seasonal and permanent workers across the food system. Labour and migration policies for agricultural and food workers need to be guided by a food sovereignty framework, and people’s welfare and human rights must be at the heart of decision-making that guarantees dignified livelihoods, social security and a decent income for workers across the food system.

5.2 Guarantee a living wage, [5] as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and secure contracts for all workers in the food and farming sector /190[edit]

5.2.1 Legislate to make the living wage a legal requirement for all employees across the food and farming sector and other parts of the economy.

5.2.1 (a) Employees in the food and farming sector should earn a living wage of £8.45 per hour (at time of writing), with a regional variation for London. /192 [6]

5.2.1 (b) In the interim, support all employers in the sector to become accredited Living Wage Employers, as they identify and work to eliminate obstacles to providing a living wage for all workers. This is critically important, but must be carefully implemented in a way that doesn’t undermine farmers in the short-term. /194 [7]

5.2.2 Reintroduce the Agricultural Wages Board in England.

5.2.2 (a) Reintroduce a robust Agricultural Wages Board to ensure decent employment opportunities, a living wage for all plus pay for skills and experience to build a career structure, and the wider benefits that come with having an independent bargaining body.

5.2.2 (b) Monitor work conditions with fully resourced enforcement bodies including the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and HMRC and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority through the Director of Labour Market Enforcement (DLME) and ensure fair pay and safe work for workers across the food system.

5.2.2 (c) In the interim to transitioning to a Living Wage (£.8.45 at the time of writing as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation), all agricultural workers – irrespective of age and duties – must receive at least a single minimum hourly rate at the National Minimum Wage of (£7.50 at the time of writing) as is currently the case in Scotland via the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board.

5.3 Create opportunities for training and apprenticeships in agriculture [8][edit]

5.3.1 Improve demographic representation and opportunities in the agricultural workforce. Create bursary-funded apprenticeships and traineeships to support and encourage underrepresented groups to take up agricultural professions.

5.4 Introduce a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme open to all nationalities[edit]

5.4.1 All workers on this scheme must be guaranteed the right to work with dignity and the same rights must be offered to all employees in England, regardless of nationality or status, namely:

5.4.1 (a) The right to retain freedom of movement and residence for EU citizens living and/or working in the UK.

5.4.1 (b) The right to legally binding contracts to ensure all workers consistently receive a minimum National Living Wage rate of (£7.50/hour at the time of writing).

5.4.1 (c) The right to a maximum eight-hour working day, with mandatory set rest periods of at least 30 minutes for every 5.5 hours of work, as is standard in UK employment law.

5.4.1 (d) The assurance that the health and safety standards of all working environments, including those providing accommodation, are guaranteed through approval and regular monitoring by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This will require greater levels of staffing for enforcement.

5.4.1 (e) Access to appropriate training in operating any machinery and provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) kit where necessary.

5.4.2 Continue government support for the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. Strengthen and extend its powers, including increasing the amount of enforcement officers and inspections to ensure that employment agencies are not exploiting workers. [9] Ensure that all employers in a supply chain comply with the law on deductions for transport and accommodation. /195

5.5 Ensure and protect access to union representation for all food and agricultural workers[edit]

5.5.1 Ensure all food and agricultural workers, especially seasonal and migrant workers, women, and people who identify as LGBT, marginalised or vulnerable, are given fair representation and have access to:

5.5.1 (a) Organisations that provide support for vulnerable workers and migrant workers.

5.5.1 (b) English language provision and support, to help migrant and seasonal workers to improve knowledge of their rights and be able to ask for help and advice.

5.5.1 (c) Readily available advice about how to seek legal redress and compensation in any instance where the terms of a work contract have been broken, amended or violated.

5.5.2 The power of unions to represent and support workers must be protected through legislation.

5.5.2 (a) Monitor discrimination from employers towards employees who unionise. Employees must have the right, protected through legislation, to unionise and organise through collective bargaining.

5.5.2 (b) Place a moratorium on any further changes imposed by government over the power of union organising and the right to strike.

5.6 Develop fairer trading laws /197[edit]

5.6.1 Incorporate the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Decent and Productive Work in Agriculture Agenda, /198 which was developed as a strategy for working towards implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. /199 It focuses on employment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue in order to deliver quality jobs along with respect for rights at work to achieve sustainable, inclusive economic growth and eliminate poverty.

5.6.2 Give the Grocery Code Adjudicator more funding, staff and powers to extend their remit in all food supply chains and make adequate resources available for monitoring (see policy recommendations 8.1.1, 8.2.1, 9.9.3)

5.6.2 (a) The GCA should not only have the ability to fine tier-one suppliers, such as supermarkets, that breach agreements with their suppliers, [10] but to cover the whole supply chain and protect indirect suppliers, including many farmers in Britain and abroad. [11]

5.6.3 Policy makers should collaborate with, and seek advice and guidance from, workers’ unions here in England, our neighbouring countries and overseas.

See also[edit]

Sustainable livelihood UK

External links[edit]


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Notes and references

  1. Across England, there is a resurgence in small-scale food production and distribution through micro-dairies, market gardens, urban growing projects and small-scale farming. However, because there are no official statistics, information or data on small-scale food production (as land holdings under five hectares (12 acres) are not eligible for subsidy and not classified as a farm), it is impossible to get an accurate and comprehensive picture of who is working in agriculture today.
  2. The Welsh government, however, introduced the Agricultural Wages (Wales) Order 2016, and Northern Ireland has the statutory Agricultural Wages Board for Northern Ireland. /156 The Scottish Government retained the Agricultural Wages Board after a consultation showed that its removal could increase poverty in the agriculture sector, /157 and has announced that as of 1st April 2017, all agricultural workers irrespective of age and duties must receive a single minimum hourly rate at the National Living Wage of £7.50. /158
  3. There are unions and grassroots organisations across Europe working with undocumented and seasonal migrant workers to protect their rights and livelihoods. For example, the Land Workers Union (Sindicato de Obreros del Campo), /169 The Andalusian Union of Workers (Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores) in Spain (where more than 30% of our vegetables and 15% of our fruit come from) /170 and The Base Union (Unione Sindacale di Base) in Italy, which focuses on the right to housing for seasonal and migrant workers.
  4. These statistics come from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), however the ONS acknowledges that this isn’t the entire picture. In fact, the ONS survey does not cover workers living in a communal establishment, nor temporary foreign workers who are only in the UK for a few months and return home. Therefore, most seasonal workers are unlikely to be counted under this survey. /184
  5. The living wage differs from statutory minimum wages in that it is calculated according to workers’ needs, not the demands of the labour market. A living wage ensures that working people can earn enough to meet all their daily expenses and have some discretionary income left over to invest in their own or their family’s future. /191
  6. This is part of a broader shift to a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and need for an adequate in-work tax and benefits system that meets the needs of workers, sick and unemployed. /193
  7. Many farmers struggle to cover the costs of production and introducing a living wage without changing the wider economics of agriculture would disproportionately affect small farmers, leading to the further consolidation of the farming sector. If farmers are to secure a National Living Wage for themselves and their employees and respect the EU Working Time Directive, this will only be possible if farmers receive a fair return for their products (as laid out in Chapter 8: Trade) and there is investment in training and apprenticeships in agriculture (as laid out in Chapter 7: Knowledge).
  8. Refer to Chapter 7: Knowledge
  9. The current approach of combining immigration enforcement and labour inspection must end if we want a safe environment in which victims of forced labour and trafficking can come forward. In the US, there is even a memorandum of understanding between the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that immigration enforcement does not interfere with labour inspection. Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), a charity working to end human trafficking for labour exploitation, have stated that the current UK ‘policies and practices putting immigration control above all else will result in increased forced labour and modern-day slavery in the UK.’ /196
  10. The GCA found that Tesco had breached the Groceries Supply Code of Practice by delaying payments to suppliers and requiring payments for better positioning of products. /200
  11. This has been called for in an open letter in 2016 from Sustain, Traidcraft, the FairTrade Foundation and Feedback Global. /201