From Blairgowrie to the Black Sea – Strawberries and Nutella

From Blairgowrie to the Black Sea – Strawberries and Nutella, and the capitalist mode of agricultural production

Last week, a brief news story told of a violent racist attack on a family of hazelnut pickers in north west Turkey. 70% of the world’s hazelnuts are grown in the hills near Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and Turkey’s hazelnut production is estimated to employ some four million people. Picking the nuts is hard work and poorly paid. Like most of the pickers, this family was Kurdish, and had travelled hundreds of miles from the other end of the country for the harvest. The hazelnut trees grow on steep slopes, making the work dangerous and uncomfortable. For a month, pickers work up to eleven hours a day, every day of the week, for subsistence wages. The middlemen who recruit the labour take a cut of the money, which is generally not paid out until the end of the season. The meagre wages mean that all members of the family must work, and, regardless of the law, children are not exempt from the long hours or from carrying heavy loads. Only people who had no other choice would take this work – such as the Kurds, and also some Syrian refugees.

While it’s clearly bad business to attack your workers and drive them away, as in this case, racism against both groups is on the increase, and has made them more vulnerable to exploitation, by cutting off other options. And racism in Turkey is reinforced by an increasingly fascistic government.

Discrimination against the Kurds was built into the very definition of the Turkish state, which is founded on ethnic nationalism. Kurdish resistance to forced assimilation has been met with brutal crackdowns. The Kurdish south-east is poor and underdeveloped, thousands of villages have been deliberately destroyed, and millions of people have been forced to escape to the towns and cities. Many of the families who have to rely on nut picking and other seasonal agricultural work, were once able to support themselves on their own land in their own villages. Displaced and impoverished Kurds provide a pool of cheap labour, and a scapegoat for the country’s ills.

Turkey is currently home to over three million Syrian refugees – with the EU paying the Turkish government to keep them out of the rest of Europe. Only a very small proportion have been allowed work permits, so they have to rely on jobs in the informal economy, competing with, and often undercutting, existing low-paid workers. This has fed into anti-Syrian racism. A World Bank report on ‘The Impact of Syrian Refugees on the Turkish Labor Market’, written in 2015, found declining job opportunities for women, for those who were less educated, and for those in the informal sector. And a BBC radio programme on the hazelnut pickers, made last year, spoke with a Kurdish picker who had lost his former job with a construction business, and blamed Syrians who would work for half his wage, as well as the troubled Turkish economy.

While conditions in Scotland are less stark, similar forces are at play. Agricultural work has always been low-paid and relied on a boost from seasonal, often migrant, labour at harvest time. In the UK, that migrant labour has increasingly come from the poorer East European countries that have recently joined the EU. Brexit, and now the pandemic, have exposed how British agriculture has developed round the exploitation of this labour source, and this has been particularly stark in the berry fields of eastern Scotland.

In this economic model, groups of berry pickers are brought over from countries where wages are low and opportunities limited. They are paid piece rates to encourage fast working, and those who fail to keep up with the pace set by the nabblers, and who don’t pick enough fruit to justify the minimum wage they must be paid by law, will lose their job – and with it their accommodation. The work gangs stay in caravan sites on the farms, where they are under the eyes of their gangmaster, and easily available for the often-early shifts. Most workers are young, and provided they can make the pace and don’t get ill, they can take back earnings that will have a greater spending power in their home country than they would here.

This is not a working pattern that most people could keep up indefinitely, nor one designed to be accessible for people who don’t live on site. It was set up to exploit an economic conjuncture that can make it worthwhile for foreign workers to commit to a summer of backbreaking work and caravan accommodation, while the harvest in their home countries is brought in by people from even poorer places. It was never an arrangement designed for local people with families, or for anyone with other commitments. The idea that British people are too lazy for the work was simply a convenient myth shared by employers and armchair pundits, and farms rarely advertised for workers locally. Even so, a few local people did get picking jobs, and reported that conditions were hard – ‘like the Charlie Chaplin assembly line’.

It shouldn’t have been surprising that when Eastern European agricultural workers stopped coming here – some through fears of the racism inspired by a toxic Brexit campaign, and more after the travel restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic – not enough local people could be found to replace them. Even where furloughed workers were initially keen to help with the harvest and respond to the UK government’s recruitment campaign, they generally found no concessions made to enable them to live at home. And they were shocked by the pace of work that was expected, the long hours, and the poor conditions – as summed up by this headline, written by someone who had gone to work on an English strawberry farm: ‘5am starts, poverty wages and no running water—the grim reality of “picking for Britain”’.

With the failure to recruit and keep enough British workers, concessions were made to enable Romanians to be brought in on special charter flights; and as travel restrictions have eased, more have come over. Like many other ‘essential workers’ these pickers are at high risk of catching Covid-19, as they live and travel close together.

While some farms will have better conditions than others, farm owners are expected to produce plentiful and perfect berries for the supermarkets for very low prices. Many farmers can still lead a comfortable life themselves, but the supermarkets give them limited room to manoeuvre when it comes to management. Agriculture as a whole is a very different business in nature and scale from what it was a generation ago, when the berry picking was done by local working-class families who could come and go on a casual basis. That old system included child labour, too, though conditions were nowhere near as hard as those endured by the hazelnut pickers, and no school was missed. Children also worked at the potato harvest, which was tougher and colder, but school terms were arranged to accommodate the ‘tattie holidays’.

There has been international outcry over the use of child labour in Turkey’s hazelnut harvest; however, action has been limited in both scope and scale. The ILO, together with Turkish partners, ran a five-year project that provided schooling for a total of 1064 children of migrant pickers.  But, although they claimed this was well received, it doesn’t appear to have had a wider impact, and it did not address the underlying problem of poverty wages. There have also been attempts to pressure the international chocolate makers, such as Fererro, who buy 1/3 of Turkey’s hazelnuts, not to buy from orchards using child labour. But their buyers deal with middlemen, not with the 400,000 owners of small orchards, and child labour doesn’t feature in these brokers’ negotiations. For the orchard owners, profits are minimal even with these low wages, and picker families would not thank them for refusing to employ their children without a compensating increase in pay.

International concern will be no more than virtue signalling so long as it fails to address the logic of the system that makes all this exploitation not just possible, but inevitable. What I have described here, is simply the product of capitalism, which depends on the exploitation of those who must live by selling their labour, and which enables the Walton family, owners of Walmart and Asda, to amass over 200 billion dollars, and Giovanni Ferrero to claim 24.5 billion (Forbes). Racial discrimination, and differences in living standards between European states serve to make this exploitation even easier.

Comments (12)

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  1. John Bryden says:

    I picked (and ate) many strawberries and raspberries as a child on “Auld Andrew” (my uncle)s farm outside Scone as a child, along with my sister. It was not only the children of working class families came to pick – everyone came, including aristocrats (e.g. the unfortunate Robert Haddow, son of Lord Aberdeen semi -incarcerated in the then “lunatic asylum” Murthly in Perth, middle classes, and anyone else who wanted a day on the farm that brought in cash, gave the kids something to do in the holidays, and was usually enjoyable, and not then very long hours. Fruit was eaten, thrown at other kids, and sometimes Jock Forsyth the foreman of fruit pickers, and most often put in the bucket or box to be weighed, recorded, and paid at the end of the week. There were no middle men, and all pickers were locals. In my view (which is admittedly partial and without recent experience of the system), this was a much, much, better system for all concerned than the one we have today.

    1. John Bryden says:

      Apologies, in my last post the Asylum I called Murthly was the Murray Royal, below Kinnoull hill.

      1. Jacqueline Tosh says:

        John, there were many patients at Murthly also, so it could well have been there. The two hospitals were linked and staff and patients went between the two

  2. Robbie says:

    Yes I went tattie picking when at school,must say long long ago, we had lots of fun along with hard work But I must say it breaks my heart when I read this, mans inhumanity to man ,woman and child,what is the human race coming to,when heartless billionaires can send rockets to mars,claim financial help from governments from their private islands. Which we the people finish up paying for ,this kind of capitalism has to stop, and where is the church of every denomination in this , TIME To STOP this cruelty.

  3. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    Here’s another bit of poverty porn for your delectation.

    My mother used to get lowsed from the school to go tattie howkin for Auld Smith o the Yett when she was a wee lassie during the War. If it was too wet to work, she was sent back to the classroom; though Auld Smith used to sometimes conspire with them against the dominie to let them play in his barn instead Her pay at the end of the week was a sack of tatties. Never did her any harm!

    My grandfather was an itinerant farm labourer, who got paid by the term (usually a quarter-year). Part of his pay was (before he was married) his keep and (after he was married) his tied accommodation; in his last job before retirement in the mid-1960s, Auld Ellison o East Mains let him and my grannie bide in one room of an old but-and-ben, the other room of which was a tractor shed. The arrangement used to fascinate me as a wee laddie; I’d hae gien onythin ti hae a Fergie bidin ben the hoose at hame.

    Throughout his working life, most of his employers would supplement his pay by letting him take home cracked eggs, milk dregs, and sicwyce scraps to feed his family with. They’d also let him keep his own kitchen garden on a bit of spare land.

    In his retirement, he often waxed lyrical about how guid the farmers were to him and how “fowk nouadays daena ken they’re leivin.” I used to torment him by observing that, when he came home in 1919, he should have cut their bastardin throats.

    I still hate farmers.

  4. Axel P Kulit says:

    ” For the orchard owners, profits are minimal even with these low wages,”

    To me that sounds like the orchard owners are almost as exploited as the people they employ. Which suggests we have a chain of exploitation from the big buyers (supermarkets mainly I suspect) right down to the people at the bottom.

    Part of the problem is there are too many links in the chain: buyers talking to middlemen talking to farmers.

    I have NO idea how this could be fixed even if there were any political will to do so. The people at the top make their billions from the scale on which they deal. How can they be made to take less and would that really help the people at the bottom? I have my doubts. Take away all a billionaires money and give it to their workers and I suspect it would be relatively little per head in the case of the big multinationals. In any case their wealth is, I understand, mostly not in cash but in assets.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      I think the circle of ‘exploitation’ begins and ends with the consumer for whose custom the producers compete via the retail market This competition drives prices down, which eats into the profits of the producers.

      The way to ‘fix’ this is to regulate the market and enforce fair prices, much as the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy set out to do in its market regime when it first stuck its finger in the dyke of globalisation back in the early 1960s.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Axel P Kulit, the ILO (International Labour Organization) has hundreds of resources on agricultural cooperatives, including for example this course:
      My.COOP Managing your agricultural cooperatives–en/index.htm
      Community-based workers’ cooperatives are favoured by Fair Trade organizations because they have clear social goals and measurable benefits. International trade is skewed by neo-imperial power relations, and there is a perverse devaluation of food in the UK (which may be corrected by emergency). Consumer tastes are often primed in the UK towards preference for non-homegrown produce (hence we export and import salmon). There is no rational (systemic) reason why food labourers cannot be well paid. They are just easy to exploit under current political-econonic-cultural arrangements.

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        One systemic reason that many of the people employed in the Scottish food industry are relatively low-paid is that to pay them more would increase that industry’s production costs and competitively disadvantage it in the global market. That’s one of the reasons we both import and export salmon: as consumers, we tend to prefer to buy cheaper salmon from elsewhere.

        In other words, the reason is systemic rather than capricious, as you suggest; that’s how the system – free-trade – works.

        As I said before, the way to ‘fix’ this is to regulate the market and enforce fair prices. Protectionism, in other words.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Anndrais mac Chaluim, I’m surprised you’d use such a lazy misnomer as ‘free-trade’ to describe the prevailing global system. Not free from the rules drawn up by the world financial institutions under governance of the main capitalist nations (does the USA still have its effective veto at the IMF?). Not free from coercive power: gunboat-trade might be a better description, since the model of British imperial capitalism applied during the Opium Wars to blast through Chinese protectionism still holds a certain amount of sway. Not free from corruption, organised crime, black marketeering, smuggling (I hear the illicit tobacco trade is highly profitable), counterfeiting and so on. Stacked-trade, perhaps, given the abuses of the powerful to fetter the less-so. Not free from illegal state interventions, like the maximally-unfree unilateral USAmerican embargo on Cuba, and its efforts to apply the same to Iran, after previously orchestrating the killing of a million Iraqis (500,000 children) with UN sanctions. Or free from the securocratic state which demands its own illegal spyware technology. Free-trade? Crime-spree-trade more like.

          1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Yes, you’re right; the markets are hardly free, are they?

            Maybe Marx was right; maybe competition breeds monopolies, the concentration and centralisation of capital, which in turn skews the markets and makes trade less free.

            In which case, low-pay would still be systemic rather than the caprice of your romantic ‘robber-barons’, and the fix would still be to regulate the market – in this case, to avoid the concentration and centralisation of capital.

            Regulating the market (including, of course, the labour market) to enforce fair prices AND to limit the concentration and centralisation of capital… That sounds like a plan.

            But, of course, such a plan would never work. There’s no power in the world that could implement and police it to avoid the immanent systemic crisis of capitalism.

            This doesn’t mean, however, that collapse of capitalism is inevitable or even imminent; if we learnt anything from the 20th century, it’s that there’s no economic crisis in which capitalism can’t survive and prosper. Crisis capitalism, in which capitalism feeds off its own emergencies, has become the default state of the 21st century.

  5. Stuart Clark says:

    Living close to a berry field in Fife, my family and I watch in horror as hundreds of swarthy East Europeans trudge around, they work from 4am till sometimes early evening (depending on demand that day ) though they do get paid overtime , and they have to pay a sum for their berth in a caravan . (I think £40 a week ) .

    They all seem happy enough out in the fresh air all day , and they don’t seem to mind the rain or the cold breeze.
    It seems that these folk enjoy back-breaking manual work and after a few months they return home with savings in their wallets.

    Heaven forfend that any Scottish working class folk should be subject to such a soul- destroying activity.
    Thanks to the Scottish Govt there is no need for any of us to work at all, indeed leave the house .

    As Supermarket deliveries can be scheduled online, and when Television seems boring there is always Netflix or social media .

    How fortunate it is being Scottish and being protected from the rapacious practices of global capital .

    Just think how much better our lives could be with Independence ? when the full treasure chest of Scotland’s natural resources are apportioned equally (with none diverted to the Fascistic war-mongers at Westminster )

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