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21 Apr, 2020 07:08

We working classes are happy to pick fruit alongside imported Romanians, but neither they, nor we, should be exploited so badly

We working classes are happy to pick fruit alongside imported Romanians, but neither they, nor we, should be exploited so badly

It’s working-class people – of many nationalities and many colours – who are saving the UK during this Covid-19 crisis. The government must make sure that they are all paid and looked after properly.

While the world is on lockdown and most of us are happy to stay indoors to save the NHS, an army of working-class people goes out every day to keep the country going – nurses, cleaners, bus drivers, transport workers, supermarket workers, and those extremely low-paid carers working in what has now been shown to be the frontline of this crisis: old people’s homes.  

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That this army is composed of working-class people of all skin colours, who are British-born and foreign-born, and of all faiths and none, is something that makes me proud.

If there’s one lasting thing that comes out of this crisis, I hope that it’s that we’ve finally realised that working-class people are worth their weight in gold (not that I advocate selling them as trophies, of course, but in this mad world anything could happen), and start appreciating – and paying – them properly. 

It’s why I am perplexed and deeply worried at the narratives around the Romanian fruit pickers who have arrived in the UK to pick our fruit and vegetables on our farms. I have no doubt that these people are extremely qualified and have been vital in the past to the British food industry.

They are here to save us and to stop the farmers from having to destroy crops. They are a highly skilled and dedicated workforce, doing a job that’s often physically demanding and not at all well paid – all of which I believe 100%. Do you know why? Because I sat on my granddad’s knee in the early 1970s while he told me about his own father and granddad leaving the fields where they worked – and too often went hungry – as farm labourers, and instead chose to work down the coal mines at the end of the 19th century for the chance of a better life. That has always been a warning to me that as a working person our options are always a Hobson’s Choice – no choice at all. Starvation or pneumoconiosis, take your pick. 

But what I’ve read in the mainstream media in relation to the arrival of these first 150 fruit pickers has made me angry. It is, as ever, reliably schizophrenic – on one hand, we are grateful that they have come to save our fruit and veg and help feed us, and we label them as key workers so we can circumvent international law to bring them here. On the other, they are a swarm of immigrants who are not actually needed or wanted. 

Then there’s the familiar narrative, beloved of the metropolitan soft-left, Guardian-reading types, which is that our own working classes are too lazy, inexperienced and privileged to get off their settees and remove themselves from their 70-inch televisions they bought from rent-to-own companies at an eye-watering annual interest rate of 70% – which over seven years can turn a £450 television set into a £2,000 debt. That’s true alchemy. 

Let’s unpick these narratives. These Romanian fruit pickers are seasonal workers who come every year, and who are hard-working, efficient and largely uncomplaining. They are paid on ‘piece work’, so they are paid only against what they harvest. For those of you unfamiliar with piece work, it operates like this. For nine years, a long time before I became an academic, I worked on piece work making women’s tights in a factory. You do not get any guaranteed minimum wage; you earn in relation to your own productivity. 

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At the hosiery factory, I was one of 1,000 workers paid 12p for every dozen gussets sewed onto a pair of tights – our work came in bundles of ten dozen, and I could make £1.20 a bundle.

I could do twenty bundles if I worked really hard and my machine didn’t break down, and if I forfeited my lunch break. Most days you could make £20, and for a woman in the late 1980s/early 1990s, that wasn’t bad money. But it was hard work – you became a part of a machine, clocking on at 7:30am and clocking off at 4:30pm. In order to make enough money to put food on our families’ tables, we had to be skilled and fast – even if we were, though, it was extremely lowly paid, despite the best efforts of our very strong trade union that constantly kept an eye on our work rates and working conditions. 

So let me ask you: when the British working classes have had hundreds of years of history in doing this sort of work, and working skilfully and efficiently to the extent we became a wealthy country off their backs, why do sections of the media purposefully continue to condemn us as “not up for the job” as fruit pickers? 

There is a political and cultural war raging here in the UK. On one side stands a mostly middle-class group that harbours a strong level of old-fashioned bourgeois thinking. These ‘new bourgeoisie’ come from both the right and left of the political spectrum, but both agree when it comes to what they see as the problem of ‘the British working class’. Those to the right in their political thinking see the British working class as multicultural, dangerous, criminal and lazy, a burden on the nation; while those on the left equally despise them, denouncing them as mostly white, ill-educated, xenophobic to the point of racism – and responsible for both Brexit and the Conservative government. 

Meanwhile, we have our invited Romanian working-class coming into the country – who are given very little to no rights at all, and who are at the mercy of the farmers and landowners who are providing them with living accommodation and paying them a pittance. It’s exploitation they put up with, as there’s a shortage of work in their country and the cost of living is extremely low there.

It is doubtful that a British person could make such piece work, as it stands now, work for them. But there are many ways in which the government could support such a move. Thousands of students could be enlisted over the summer, and they could be trained and paid – it would take a while, but their skills would grow, as mine did in the factory. But as a working-class woman I wasn’t genetically engineered to be exploited, and neither should Romanian fruit pickers or British students/workers be. 

Instead of looking at those workers and pitting them against each other – Romanian hard-workers vs British lazy f***ers – the government could think about the power relations behind the exploitative practices. Such as extremely competitive supermarkets forever pushing the amounts they are prepared to pay for fresh fruit and food, forcing farmers to work towards ever-tightening margins and to seek to squeeze down on their costs. And so who ends up suffering? As always, the people at the bottom of the pile. The workers.

This week, we have seen the obscene spectacle of farmers pouring milk away and destroying food. This is not necessary. Work should be reasonably rewarded and people need to be safe in their workplaces. They need to be able to afford to have a proper home and a quality to their lives – and not be forced into the demeaning position of needing payday loans just to eat or having to buy their electrical goods from rapacious rent-to-buy companies. The government could outlaw the piecework scandal and take some steps to ensure fruit pickers – and all workers – get decent wages and conditions. Whatever their nationality.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.