Fruit Picking in the UK
There Is A Green Field Far Away
Big Issue September 2003
It's Autumn. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," as John Keats so evocatively put it. It is also the apple-picking season.
Of course - as many readers will know - this was always the time of year when poor people from rural communities could earn themselves a little extra cash by working out in the fields. The work is casual, meaning that you never know from day-to-day whether you will be working the following day or not. It is piece-work, meaning that you are paid, not by the hour, but by the amount of fruit you pick (the faster you pick, the more you earn.) It is also off-the-cards, meaning that (unofficially, of course) you can go on signing on while you are at it. This last fact is of mutual benefit to both the farmer and the worker. The farmer has a plentiful supply of cheap labour available as and when he needs it. If the weather is bad, or the fruit poor, then he can lay-off his work-force at a moment's notice. But if the weather is good, and the fruit abundant, he usually has more than enough workers to supply his needs. On the other hand, the unemployed worker benefits too. Having a basic income already, the worker is not dependant upon the work, can go at his or her own pace, can take a break whenever he or she feels like it, isn't obliged to turn up if other commitments (such as signing on) get in the way, and is generally his or her own boss. It's as good a way of earning money as any.
And it is good work too, as I can testify from my own experience. It's not only that you have some extra money in your pocket, to spend on those necessary little luxuries (such as a few extra nights down the pub, maybe, or saving up for Christmas), but the work is healthy, invigorating, and inherently satisfying. There's something about working out in the misty Autumn fields that is unlike any other form of labour. This is a job, you know, which has been going on like this for as long as there have been human beings on this planet: gathering in the Summer's harvest in one, final, intense burst of frenetic labour, before it's time to batten down the hatches for the dark days of Winter. The very act of doing the work makes you feel in touch with some ancient, primal force: the Earth itself, no doubt.
Unfortunately, in the last few years, things have begun to change.
I've just bumped into a friend of mine on the High Street. She's been out in the fields - first of all picking strawberries, and, latterly, apples and pears - since the beginning of Summer. She's not in the fields today though. Why? She's been laid off.
It's not that there aren't apples and pears to pick, or that the weather is bad. The trees are still bulging with fruit, and the weather is fair. There are even strawberries out there, late-fruiting varieties, under plastic tunnels. No. It's that the farmer has employed a bunch of Polish workers to do the job instead. Before that she worked on another farm. She was laid off from there too, this time because they had Czech workers to do the job.
"So how do you feel about that?" I asked.
"Pretty pissed off, actually," she said. "You ask any one. We're all pissed off." And she went off into an extended diatribe about how bad the foreign pickers are, how they might be fast, but they bruised all the fruit. "You hear the apples clumping into the boxes," she said. "They won't be back next year, so they don't care."
Trouble is, they probably will be back next year.
The demographics of the fruit picking population has been shifting for a number of years now. In the 19th century, and for a large part of the 20th, the work was done by travellers, moving around the country in family groups. Often the head of the family would simply buy the whole crop from the farmer, pick it and sell it himself. I heard one story which illustrates this. The farmer in question had a cherry orchard, which was picked, year by year, by the same family. It had been like this in the times of his father too. Every year, at the exact moment when the fruit was ripe, the family would turn up, the head of the family would negotiate a price, and then they would set about picking. The whole family was involved, from the smallest toddler, to the grandparents. And then, one year, the head of the family came up to the farmer, and with an air of profound sadness, told him they would not be back next year. "My family no longer respects me," he said. "I can't tell the youngsters what to do any more." That was about 20 years ago.
More recently, the work was done by women. The day was structured around school hours, and in the Summer the women would bring the kids along, who would themselves learn how to pick. That changed when health and safety rules banned children from farms. Latterly the work was done by unemployed people, or by women who could organise baby-sitters. Everyone I spoke to said that women make the best pickers. Men have brutal fingers, I was told, and can never quite get the hang of combining speed of movement with gentleness of touch. Indeed, a man could learn more than just picking fruit from working in the fields. Perhaps he could learn how to handle women too.
The Eastern European workers started turning up on the farms after the fall of communism, and have been growing in numbers ever since. I spoke to one of the farmers about this. How come it is worth his while to bus these workers all that distance, when there is a plentiful supply of local labour available?
"The trouble with the English workers is you don't know if they're going to turn up or not," he said. "You don't know how many will turn up, or how good they will be. It's very difficult to run a business with that kind of uncertainty. With the Eastern Europeans we book them months in advance, we know how many there will be and for how long they will work, so we can plan the whole season on that basis. Also, we can discipline them. If one of them is a quarter of an hour late, we impose a £5 fine. We can't do that with the English workers. Also, they are far better pickers. They pick more fruit, they work longer hours and - I have to admit - sometimes we pay them a little less than the English workers. This is a very competitive business," he added. "It's difficult to believe, but sometimes it's cheaper to fly fruit in from California than it is to grow and pick the fruit locally."
At the height of the season, he told me, he had about 80 Eastern Europeans working for him, living in caravans on the farm. There were still 40 of them now. They were from all over. Estonians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, Bulgarians, Hungarians. "Not so many Poles or Hungarians any more," he said. "They think of themselves as Tiger Economies these days. The English workers could learn a lot from them, from their dedication, their commitment." And he told me a story. Sometimes, he said, he put the workers on a fixed-rate instead of piece-work, but he noticed that the Eastern Europeans would visibly slow-down. He asked one of them why this was? "When I get a fixed wage," he was told, "I am a Communist. But when I am on piece-work, I am a Capitalist."
I went over to see the Eastern Europeans in their camp. They share 20 six-berth caravans in a field, four to a caravan. They are also provided with showers, toilets, a kitchen, and a TV room. I spoke to the most articulate English speaker, a Slovakian named Joseph. "Do you think you are being exploited?" I asked.
"No. Not exploited," he said. "I earn the same in a week here as I can earn in a month at home.
"Sometimes we hear the English workers are paid more than us. This makes us angry. But then it is explained that the English workers have to pay tax."
I didn't want to tell him that, actually, the English workers pay no tax either.
He said he had paid a lump sum for the trip, which had taken 24 hours in a coach. It was all part of the deal. He was given a list of farms and asked to select the one he wanted to work on. It turned out, from what he had heard, that he had probably selected the best farm in the region.
"Do you like England?" I asked.
"Is OK," he said, non-committally.
"And are you saving any money?"
"Some of the workers here they save everything. They live off bread and they never go out. But I cannot live in a caravan like that. I like to eat. I like to go to the pub. The beer is expensive here. In my home it is cheap. So I save about half what I earn. When I first went to the pub I was surprised. Close at 11 o'clock. They say: 'you go home now!' So I say, 'where is the next pub?' 'No, you don't understand,' they say, 'all pubs closed, finished.' In my country, no one cares. 1 o'clock. 2 o'clock. It doesn't matter."
"How do you get on with the locals?" I asked.
"They're always fighting," he said. "Pick fights on us. Pick fights on each other. It's because they drink their beer too quick," he added, "because the pubs close too early."
After that I went to see a supervisor at the farm where I used to work. How did he feel about the changes? I asked.
"The English workers can't pick," he said. "You know yourself, Chris: a little bit of rain and they all disappear. Or it's tea-break after tea break. They think they're out there to socialise. And - you can write this down if you want - if it wasn't for the Eastern Europeans I wouldn't have a job now. It's the Eastern Europeans who're keeping the farm going. They haven't taken the English worker's jobs away from them. The English workers can still work if they want. It's just that the Eastern Europeans are more reliable."
"Are they being exploited?" I asked.
"Of course not!" he said, laughing. "They go on strike if they don't like the rates. They've done that a few times. Then we're really stuck. We have to pay them what they want. They're very aware of the value of money, don't you worry. They know precisely what they're worth."
Changes in the Day Casual Worker's rules means that this process is likely to escalate. Farmers are being forced to take people's NI numbers before they can work, meaning that unemployed British workers will be even less likely to get jobs on farms. The only hope is that benefit rules might be relaxed too, so that workers could declare their income, but stay on benefits if they are temporarily laid off.
The problem with farm-work is that it is unreliable and dependant on the weather. As the farmer told me, "our factory has no roof."
When I'd gone to visit Joseph in his caravan I'd noticed a row of beer cans on a shelf above the bed. The Slovakian workers had been trying all the available beers. There were cans of Tennants, cans of Red Stripe, cans of Carlsburg, cans of Special Brew. "Which one did you like best?" I asked.
"This one," he said, pointing at a can of Tennants. "See. Made with Czech yeast."
© 2019 Christopher James Stone