Abuse of migrant workers in Scotland has recently been uncovered in a survey by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), a non-governmental organisation which has investigated the UK’s ‘seasonal workers pilot’ scheme.
The intention of the work scheme is to alleviate the shortage of low-wage seasonal manual labour, following the end of free movement from the European Union.
Under the scheme, agencies such as Concordia and Pro-Force hire labour from Russia, Ukraine, and other countries, primarily for UK agriculture. This scheme has a quota of 30,000 workers for 2021 – a leap from the initial quota of 2500 in 2019. These agencies are charged £244 per person for a six-month visa.
The FLEX survey finds that over half of these workers are on piece-rates: an exploitative method of zero-hour contract, whereby bosses pay based on the quantity of produce picked, and not by the number of hours worked. This has led to workers being dismissed early in the day based on fulfilling a quota, unable to earn more.
If pickers do not make the quota, their pay must then be ‘topped up’ to the £8.72 per hour minimum wage. This incentives employers to reject workers who are not fast enough, in order to avoid paying. The experience of working in this system has been described as “an endurance race”. Furthermore, it is stacked against newer migrant workers with less experience.
The survey uncovered that two-thirds of workers had been threatened with unemployment. And up to 60% had been given incorrect information about expected earnings before travelling. Around 60% were also reported to have been refused transfers to other farms; and many complained about their inability to move placements.
Supposed ‘regulators’ like the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority – which is supposed to prevent these abuses – have offered no support. Workers ultimately feel misled; abandoned to the cruel reality of the exploitative scheme.
There is inherent hypocrisy in the circumstances these migrant workers find themselves in: relied on for their labour, and yet xenophobically scapegoated by those who exploit it.
To maintain low food costs and farms’ profit margins, it is imperative for the bosses to maintain a supply of cheap labour from abroad.
As highlighted by the dismal uptake of the ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign in 2020, it is unlikely that UK-born workers will take up these low-paid, precarious jobs.Iain Brown, the chair of the National Farmers Union Scotland’s working group on horticulture, describes the work of migrants in Scotland’s farm industry as a “vital asset”.
The necessity of migrant labourers to the capitalists contrasts strongly with the image of them published in the reactionary press, where they are depicted as ‘job stealers’ or work-shy criminals.
This very seasonal labour scheme has been implemented solely because of the aftermath of Brexit, which itself was fuelled by decades of anti-immigrant rhetoric generated by the ruling class.
Even in Scotland, where establishment politicians generally take a more openly pro-immigration stance and opposition to Brexit was stronger, migrant workers are exploited all the same.
The standards of labour are unfair and atrocious. Such a situation can only be maintained so long as a barrier – built up by tabloid racists and reactionary politicians – separates migrant from native-born labour. After Brexit, as before, all workers must unite together to defend their basic rights.
This does not mean we embrace the European Union, however, which has enabled the exploitation of immigration within the bloc, and has cruelly locked down the borders of Europe to those outside.
The labour movement must fight for a living wage and guaranteed hours for agricultural labourers and all workers. The mass of migrants who have come to work in Britain deserve fair treatment and security.
The trade unions should make efforts to organise these workers, in order to provide collective protection and bargaining. This should accompany a militant campaign across the whole of the labour movement against zero-hours contracts, unfair quotas, and piece-rates – as seen in the so-called ‘gig economy’ also.
Above all, we must call for workers to unite in the face of adversity and exploitation; to overcome all borders and stand together against the poison of racism and xenophobia.
It is only through international working-class unity that we can fight back against the ruthless logic of the capitalist system, and stop this race to the bottom forced on workers by the bosses. As one migrant worker stated: “All should be equal… that’s the most important thing.”