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In September 2021 the National Farmers’ Union petitioned the British government to act on the unprecedented labour crisis affecting agriculture, which led to hundreds of tonnes of fruit and vegetables being thrown into landfill or left to rot in the fields this year. But what is life like for seasonal workers in the sector? Elena Stancu, who is supported by the Pulitzer Center, and Cosmin Bumbuț report from an apple farm in Kent
1st September 2021 (Taken from: #44)
Since January 2019, we have been travelling around Europe in a camper van to document the lives of Romanian migrants, who are part of one of the world’s biggest diasporas. We have parked up in strawberry fields in Spain; in the courtyard of the Romanian church in Berlin; next to a hospital in Peschiera del Garda, Italy, staffed by Romanian doctors; and in the Algarve in Portugal, to visit Romanians working in the hospitality industry.
In autumn 2021 we came to the UK and spent two weeks with Romanian pickers at the Parsonage Farm in Cobham in Kent, one of five farms owned by Adrian Scripps Ltd. There the workers are paid £18 for each bin of Gala apples – approximately 350 kilograms – that they pick. In one ten-hour day of picking they can earn about £120, compared to the £16-£25 a day they would make for the same work in Romania. Romanians live among Bulgarian, Polish and Ukrainian workers in caravans which they rent for £28 a week. If they make it to the end of the monotonous, back-breaking, two-month-long picking season they get their rent money back.
The presence of these workers has been crucial to the UK’s agricultural industry – in 2019 an estimated 98 percent of all fruit and vegetable pickers in the UK were EU migrants, a large percentage of whom came from Romania and Bulgaria. Among the people we met in Kent were Paula Tălăban and her husband Relu, both 48. For the last six years they have been working for a few months each year at the Parsonage Farm alongside their 25-year-old son Alin.
The Tălăbans come from the southern Romanian town of Dăbuleni. They work in agriculture back home as well, raising pigs and poultry and growing fruit and vegetables on four hectares of land. As unregistered workers – like many in rural Romania – they have no medical insurance in their home country nor will they receive a pension there. The employment contract they signed for their farm work in the UK was the first they have ever received, and they are better protected in England than at home in Romania.
The Tălăbans come to the UK to make money to invest in the house they are building back in Romania and in the watermelons they will plant next spring in Dăbuleni. They go to extreme lengths to spend as little as possible while abroad. The family could fly to the UK on a low-cost airline but instead, like many of their fellow workers, they have always chosen a more expensive, 44-hour-long minibus journey. The reason is the luggage allowance – on the minibus, each passenger is entitled to bring 50kg with them, which the majority use to bring food over, to help minimise the amount they spend during their time in the UK. Each year the family packs pork preserved in lard, frozen meat, homemade wine, cheese, potatoes, aubergines and even Dăbuleni watermelons. Post-Brexit border changes mean that technically they should not be allowed through with many of these items but they and their fellow passengers, many no doubt unaware of the new restrictions, were nonetheless able to bring them into the UK this year just as they have done in the past.
The Tălăbans have never visited London, which is just an hour by train from the farm. They don’t speak English and they are afraid they might get lost. They go shopping for essentials once a week in Gravesend, on the double-decker bus provided by the farm. They feel aggrieved when pouring rain prevents them from picking and earning any money. To Paula and Relu, life is nothing but work – cultivating the land in southern Romania, where temperatures can exceed 40C in summer, and picking apples in the UK in autumn.
The precariousness of their life in Romania, where they have never had a steady job, has taught them that the only thing they can rely on is their savings.
Brexit and the pandemic have hit British farms hard. There are fertiliser shortages and energy and transportation costs have increased dramatically. The biggest problem, however, is the lack of labour. Until 2019, hundreds of seasonal workers applied each year to work at the Parsonage Farm, but in 2021 37-year-old Romanian farm manager Radu Țăndărescu struggled to find the bare minimum of 42 pickers needed to bring in the crop, even after using the services of an agency. The National Farmers’ Union has said that, across the country, growers have found they’ve had 34 percent fewer pickers than needed to get in the year’s fruit and vegetable harvest.
The problems began in 2020. Romanian workers started to call Țăndărescu to ask if they needed a visa or a passport rather than just an ID card to work and whether they might be sent back at the UK border. Many Eastern European seasonal workers come from vulnerable and impoverished rural communities with low levels of education, and the information they receive about changes like Brexit is often incomplete or incorrect.
To avoid being left without labourers last year farm supervisor Alexandra Scarlat, also Romanian, helped the pickers to fill in their paperwork. Some have ‘pre-settled’ or ‘settled’ status from having spent significant periods of time in the UK. Those who don’t are obliged to apply for one of the 30,000 temporary work visas that have been issued for seasonal workers. However, this involves going online, and many of the potential workers have neither internet access nor an email address.
Afraid the crop might be left on the trees, Adrian Scripps Ltd. has imported new apple-picking machines from Italy. Workers feed the apples onto conveyor belts on the machines’ arms, increasing productivity and cutting staffing levels in half. The machines are expensive, though, costing up to €100,000 each – previously workers were just issued with a bucket and a ladder. Each week Țăndărescu is visited by British farmers who want to see the picking machines in action. They all complain of not having enough workers.
Despite the hiring problems there are still some new seasonal workers entering the field. Angela Morenciu was a late starter in seasonal work abroad, setting out for the first time last year aged 53 with the aim of clearing her debts. Her family had borrowed 15,000 lei (£2,500) to pay for the funerals of her parents-in-law, who died two months apart from each other, and she needed to pay it off.
Morenciu and her friend Niculina Miri, 57, are both from Filiași, a town in southern Romania. During their time at the Parsonage, they never leave the farm. “Where are we supposed to go?” Miri asks me. As well as saving to pay off debts, they tell me they want to “buy all sorts of things” for their grandchildren. “That’s why we left home, so we could have a better life.” In a way, however, many of the seasonal workers at the farm in Cobham never leave Romania. They eat food brought from home, speak Romanian, watch Romanian TV and can’t wait to return to their families back home. Migration is a chore, a consequence of the unemployment and poverty in Romania.
Like the other seasonal workers we met at the farm, Morenciu and Miri have not been inoculated against Covid-19. Romania has only vaccinated 36 percent of its population and there is widespread distrust of the government vaccination programme and of politicians in general. If the UK made vaccination a prerequisite for seasonal work, that would put up another barrier to entry. Romanians are already unhappy at the £244 cost for seasonal work visas. They, along with workers from Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia have to pay £55 more than other EU citizens (due, says the government, to their countries having not ratified the Council of Europe’s social charter), a significant amount to pay up front.
With high costs for entry, paperwork that requires internet access, a swirl of misinformation about the fallout from Brexit and other European nations crying out for seasonal workers, getting the pickers that have served British farms so well in the past to return in large numbers is a challenge.
That leaves farm managers like Țăndărescu trying to hire more British labourers, as the UK government has been urging through its ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign. This picking season he tried to attract locals through initiatives including flexible working hours for mothers, so they could work while their children were at school. Only two British citizens showed up for work, and one left the farm an hour later. “Sorry, mate,” he told Țăndărescu, “but it’s not for me.”
We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #44 of Delayed Gratification
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