If the U.K. leaves the European Union as it has voted to do, it could mean the end of domestically grown fruit and veg, leaving the island nation to import its fresh produce. Most fruit, vegetables and salad is picked by immigrant workers, and if the U.K. does indeed cut itself off from the rest of the world, then the supply of pickers will dry up.
The Brexit vote came down to two things. Many people used it as a protest against both the perceived lack of democratic process in the EU itself. Others, either already-racist, or scared into xenophobia by politicians exploiting the effects of a terrible economy on working people, voted against immigration.
This is particularly ironic in Britain, a country whose empire once ruled much of the world, and where the national dish is chicken tikka masala (or perhaps Chinese stir fry).
According to the Guardian, 90% of domestic fruit and vegetables is “picked, graded and packed by 60,000 to 70,000 workers from overseas, mostly from eastern Europe.” The Leave vote was often strongest in the places where these people work. But with immigrants no longer allowed into the country, there will be nobody left to bring in the harvest.
Normally statements like this from large food production companies would be seen as self-serving propaganda, scare-mongering for political gain. But in this case, the threat may be real. After all, the fruit and veg industry employs immigrant workers because locals don’t want the work.
“If we don’t have freedom of movement and they don’t replace it with a permit scheme then the industry will just close down” John Shropshire, chairman of salad and vegetable producer G’s, told the Guardian. “No British person wants a seasonal job working in the fields. They want permanent jobs or jobs that are not quite as taxing physically.”
The idea that foreigners are “coming over here and taking our jobs” is plainly ridiculous, as no Brit would do those jobs. The U.S. may face the same problem, if the anti-immigrant sentiment currently being stirred up by Trump gets any traction. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, around three-quarters farm workers in the U.S. are “foreign-born and crossed a border to get here.”
“Growers say they are bearing the brunt of the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration,” wrote the Wall Street Journal‘s Ilan Brat last year, “as they lack a suitable alternative workforce. U.S.-born workers unaccustomed to farm labor abandon the job after just days during harvest, farm owners say.”
Trouble completing the harvest is bad news in the U.S., but in the U.K., an island, it could be disastrous, forcing the country to import everything from mainland Europe, or the rest of the world, and at prices governed not by favorable EU trade deals, but by individual negotiations made country by country. Britain was cut off like this once before, during WWII, and the fear of it happening again drove the country to industrialize food production. Now it is just giving away that hard-fought independence–ironic considering that the Brexit vote was supposedly about making Britain less dependent on Europe.
“There would be more risks around its security, we wouldn’t be as food secure as a nation,” Angus Davison, cherry and berry producer, told the Guardian.
But the workers themselves are set to suffer just as much. There will still be immigrant workers, but their illegal, or quasi-legal status will be exploited, and they will be mistreated, just like in the U.S. “The undocumented status of an overwhelming number of farm workers has given way to increasing injustice and abuse against them,” writes Extension’s Eduardo González, Jr.
Produce isn’t the only U.K. industry that relies on foreign workers. Dairy and meat processing both operate on non-U.K. labor, and, says the Guardian’s Damian Carrington, “Even the vets employed by the Food Standards Agency are overwhelmingly—98%—from the from EU nations.”
Brexit has turned into a morass of unforeseen consequences, or unforeseen to the Leave voters anyway. It is also a clear lesson that people don’t always want what they think they want, but the results, already being felt, could destroy a country that’s already on precarious economic ground.
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