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.