Immigration policies of Christmas past are haunting our Christmas future

Christmas is here and being marked in the British way by excessive consumption of food and drink, harvested, processed, delivered and served thanks to the labour of migrant workers. 

Post Date
20 December, 2016
Reading Time
5 min read

Christmas is here and being marked in the British way by excessive consumption of food and drink, harvested, processed, delivered and served thanks to the labour of migrant workers. They produce all the components of the traditional Christmas dinner: they pick sprouts, dig and sort potatoes, pluck turkeys, mix puddings, wrap pigs in their blankets and pack it all off to supermarkets. They toil in restaurants and pubs serving our pre-Christmas meals and drinks and clean up when we’ve gone home to sleep it off.

The food industry is reliant on migrant workers, and this year employers will be hoping the Government won’t play Scrooge and cut off their supply in a post-Brexit Britain. But how dependent is the food industry on migrant workers and what policies might be put in place when free movement ends, as is likely to happen?

Migrant workers and the food industry in Christmas present

Thirty five per cent of workers in the food processing sector are migrant workers, 21 per cent alone from Eastern Europe. The chart below shows how the proportion of migrant labour in the food manufacturing sector grew rapidly from 2004, when eight Eastern European states joined the EU.

Proportion of Migrants Working in UK Food and Drink Manufacturing, by non-EU and EU country groupings

There are an estimated 25,000 EU nationals working in crop and animal production but high rates of temporary work and employer-provided accommodation result in significant undercounting of numbers. However, it is accepted that from nose to tail, the food industry is highly dependent on EU migrants.

Who did the picking, plucking and packing in Christmas past?

Migrants are not recent arrivals to the food industry. The Seasonal Agricultural Workers (SAWS) scheme was introduced immediately after the Second World War to meet labour shortages, while the food processing and hospitality schemes dated from only 2003. All three schemes were targeted at young people from Europe and outside, granting a stay of up to a year and with no right to permanent settlement. The hospitality scheme was short-lived, with the Government deciding in 2005 to phase it out, in view of prospective migration from Eastern Europe but also accusations of abuse of its terms. SAWS remained until 2014 but was restricted from 2007 to Romanians and Bulgarians, while the food processing scheme operated also until that time but was very under-used due to the availability of EU migrants

Looking further back, it seems farmers have used an array of other sources of labour, including London’s East Enders who enjoyed working holidays on hop-farms in Kent. Toy cars are a common find in orchards, because women workers would take their children there to play while they picked the fruit. Health and safety legislation put a stop to that.

What about Christmas future?

We currently have little idea of what policies might be put in place once free movement ends. There seems to be a growing recognition that provision will need to be made for low skilled labour. As the  Brexit secretary David Davies said last week, future immigration policy will need to consider ..”all levels of skill….what’s necessary for universities, what’s necessary for business, and what’s necessary for fruit picking.” One option would be to return to the sector based schemes, including restriction of one year on the right to stay with no rights for family members. The Government may find this option attractive, both because it would reduce migration but more because temporary stays are not included in the migration statistics. Employers could be given access to the migrant labour they need, and the public could be shown a fall in net migration close to the Government’s target of tens of thousands.

There would be advantages and disadvantages for employers. But for the public, temporary schemes will lead to more of the migration that it dislikes – the kind that creates churn in local communities, of people with little incentive to integrate. British Future has found that the majority, who it terms the ‘anxious’ middle, are more likely to agree with the statement that: “It is better for Britain when migrants who come here put down roots and integrate into our society becoming one of us” (64%) than to feel “It is better for Britain when migrants come here to work for a few years without integrating and putting down roots, then return home” (36%). Temporary schemes will also lead to greater use of agencies if, like the previous schemes, applications have to be from outside the UK and in response to an employer’s advertisement. And agencies are not viewed positively.

The Christmas story itself is a sorry tale involving official statistics and labour shortages. Mary and Joseph spent their first Christmas together travelling hundreds of miles to comply with a census relating to Joseph’s citizenship status. They found all the hotels full to capacity, indicating labour shortages, possibly also linked to immigration policies. There was a Star – but no Starbucks, a manger – but no Pret and they had to rely on local shepherds for their meals. Although it all turned out well, it’s a set of circumstances that any government would wish to avoid.

We have come to expect easy access to food and drink when we want it and at affordable prices, and migrant labour has undoubtedly helped bring that about. While the food industry is, as always, looking to attract more British labour, this won’t happen overnight and past experience suggests we will continue to need migrants. We will need policies that enable employers to find the labour they need, while ensuring that British workers are also able to access jobs and communities are not impacted negatively. As we say farewell to the year that saw our decision to leave the EU, that must be something we can all drink to. 

Heather Rolfe’s research on future immigration policies is funded by the ESRC UK in a Changing Europe programme