Lincolnshire’s migrant farmworkers are the first to experience the impacts of Brexit.
Brits don’t want to work in the fields. Almost 100% of the region’s field workers are migrants from Eastern Europe. But when Brexit brings free movement to an end, EU farm labourers could have to look for jobs elsewhere.
Lincolnshire’s Agriculture and Fear of Immigration
In the middle of Lincolnshire, Salih Georgiev stands on a giant arable field shimmering in autumn green and brown. He wears mud-splattered jeans and a woolly beanie. It’s early in the morning. His workday begins at 4:30 am and ends late in the evening. With overtime and bonuses for quickly cutting flowers, he will make more than £3000 in eight weeks of six-day work. The hard part is the monotonous, repetitive nature of the tasks. It’s still not a bad job. But because of Brexit, his 5th anniversary working here might well be his last.
Salih is part of the 10% currently working in Lincolnshire’s agricultural sector. And he is one of many who hails from the UK’s European neighbours. This area in Eastern England is like a giant greenhouse; with nutrient-rich soil yielding vegetables, wheat, sugar beets and flowers at record levels. Agriculture contributes almost 13% of the county’s Gross Value Added. Food and farming is a key financial input for the region.
Recent tensions between migrant workers and local people overshadow the successful harvest: 65.8% voted in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum with Boston’s 75.6% being the highest Leave percentage in the country. Mass immigration scared the general population, in part driven by suggestions, for example, that thousands of Muslims could move to the UK if Turkey joined the EU. Lincolnshire wants to control immigration, but economic migrants make up the agricultural workforce. This begs the question: who will pick the fruit after Brexit?
Eastern Europe’s Migrant Workers
99% of seasonal workers in Lincolnshire who picked fruit in 2017 were from Eastern Europe. Georgiev, 27, is one of them. He is a sweet-tempered, sharp-eyed young man with a tanned face. He arrived five years ago as a seasonal worker and picked fruit until he moved to Ian Collison’s flower-growing business, Collison Cut Flower.
Originally Georgiev is from Brashten, a small village in southwestern Bulgaria, thousands of kilometres away from the UK. “The situation in my country is not good, I need to do this work,” Georgiev said. He frequently sends money back to his family, but he never wants to go back. “I want to make my own business one day. Maybe in five or ten years, depending on how hard I’m working,“ he said.
Every year, almost a third of Brashten’s nearly 1,000 residents travel to England to work in fields or processing factories. They are temporary, low paid, back-breaking jobs that require long hours. The workers arrive for peak season and farm fruits and vegetables, or cut flowers. “This business is mostly built by us, people from Eastern Europe,” Georgiev said, “We come here to work over six, seven, ten years.”
Salih Georgiev is part of an influx of economic migrants who have arrived over the past ten years for labour-intensive crop production in Lincolnshire, which has the fourth-highest concentration of farms in the UK.
The Tension Between Locals and Workers
The county’s agriculture holds importance to more than just locals; nearly a quarter of all land used for horticulture in England is in Lincolnshire. According to the National Farmers Union, 70,000 to 80,000 seasonal workers are needed for harvest each year.
One reason behind the Brexit vote is no mystery: when Bulgaria and Romania, and ten other member states joined the EU in 2004, thousands flocked for jobs. In 2012, around 21,000 seasonal workers from Bulgaria and Romania moved to the UK, which more than doubled in 2014 to 46,000. Lincolnshire, a region ill-prepared to handle large scale migration, saw a population increase between 2004 and 2014 of 8.8%.
Three years after the vote, Brexit has still not happened. Nonetheless, it has contributed to a devalued pound, dampening any monetary incentive for international workers. At the same time, the economic situation in Romania and Bulgaria is changing for the better.
Brexit: A Threat to Agriculture
Three generations of Collisons have managed Collison Cut Flowers in Lincolnshire. Ian Collison, 46, is the latest to man the helm. His business has already suffered pre-Brexit. “Brexit has cost us money. We lost money on foreign exchange when the pound crashed,” said Collison. “All expansion and investment is put on hold. We can’t plan to expand our business if we don’t know whether we will be able to access the staff we need.”
Collison’s workforce changed recently. “Our staff definitely feel less secure and less welcome in the UK,” he said, “since the vote, I’ve lost ten of my workers.” This could cause problems post-Brexit since free movement between Europe and the UK could be brought to a close. If a no-deal Brexit happens, it would cause other problems for Collison’s business, which relies on smooth supply chains. “Our goods are live plants,” he said, “delays and lacking staff could cause quality issues.”
His assumption is right; figures from the National Farmers Union show that by 2018, two years after the referendum, 12.5% of job positions were left unfilled and farmers reported food was left to rot due to 20% less staff.
With a £6,7 million annual turnover and 90 employees at peak times, Collison Cut Flowers is one of the largest flower growers in the region. 90 per cent of his workers are European migrants. “We cannot recruit locally as there are not enough people available,” Collison said, “and they do not want to work in horticulture.”
Could British Workers be the Answer?
Yet despite the threat to the local economy, British workers do not want to take on the available jobs. Malgorzata Piatkowska, 34, leads the recruitment team at Pro-Force, a UK recruitment agency which supplies labourers to about 300 English farms. This year, almost none were English. “Out of 13,000 applicants, we’ve had eight from the UK,” she said. When asked why, she looks at her reports: long hours, hard physical work, temporary, regions are far out, lack of convenient transport.
“And in other words,” she said, “it’s often associated with low social status.”
When asked about robots if Brits don’t want to work in agriculture, Ian Collinson said: “we can’t automatise to an endless extent, we still need handwork”.
When I ask Salih Georgiev how he imagines the future of Lincolnshire farms, he shrugs his shoulders. “At the end, there is the same amount of international workers, less from Bulgaria and more from Asia or Africa,” he said.
Whatever happens, Lincolnshire’s farms remain heavily dependent on migrant labour. If fewer workers come from Europe, the jobs left empty will have to be filled by workers from wide and far out.