THE FLOWER PICKER'S LAMENT
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
On December 18th 2021 I read an article by Rachel Stevenson in the Observer with the headline, “Millions of daffodils will rot if Brexit denies UK farmers foreign workers.” The journalist is one I respect and is knowledgeable. She has in the past worked with daffodil pickers and documented this. So I have no doubt about her authority and credence of what she said in her article that focused on Cornish daffodil picking.
The labour problems described in this article are common to much of agriculture and the food industry, whether it is the harvesting of Brussel sprouts in the fields of Lincolnshire; packing and processing of fruit and vegetables in Spalding; the slaughtering and butchering of pigs and cattle; or the processing and packing of coleslaw. All activities affected by a labour shortage.
I know some Lincolnshire farmers will be displeased by what I am about to write. But I make no apologies as we all see the world through different windows. However in this writing I am going to focus on some of the history of flower picking in Lincolnshire and specifically the South Holland area. It will, by its nature , touch on issues applying to the vegetable and other industries.
Whilst Brexit and Covid have accelerated the problems, I will show some inconvenient truths that is driven by a continued drive to the bottom on price that has seen a Mother’s Day bunch of daffodils for sale at 10p a bunch as a seasonal loss leader. I also consider that difficulties caused by Brexit were predictable and any belief of government promise to enable European workers to access the UK for work was naïve and misguided for two reasons: It does not take into account the improved situation in terms of income, wealth and opportunity in Eastern Europe largely fuelled by the German economy; it showed too much faith in government that takes the votes of farmers and business for granted (in my humble opinion). The later point is illustrated in my own South Holland constituency, a Tory stronghold for many decades has seen massive population growth, largely due to the success and abundance of work from the food and farming industries, but this has not been matched with proportionate investment in basic services resulting in those perpetually loyal voters being consistently worse off throughout my working life.
Covid threw an atomic bomb into the employment market. Almost overnight employees could flit from one employer to another and more than double their wage. Those at the bottom of the process – the harvesters, the farmers, could not afford to compete. Covid and lock downs both here and abroad also caused a problem in that people had to look to their hearts as to whether they wished to be apart from family in another country when it was not always possible to catch a flight home, or drive home across Europe at will. At the same time the opportunities for greater income in their countries of origin increased at an accelerated rate. The draw to return rather than stay in a country where you were having to “apply” to gain recognition of your right to remain was great.
So what of “The Flower Pickers Lament”? I take you back in time, to help provide a historical context to labour. It is 1982 and I am in my father’s TV shop in the middle of Spalding and in walks Tom Ward with a couple of photographs to show my father. Tom is a farm hand that has worked all his life on the land and lives in a tied cottage owned by his farming employer near Sur fleet, right in the middle of grade one land that is excellent for most crops including daffodils. The pictures he shows me are from the late 1940’s and show groups of mostly ladies picking flowers in a local field. A second picture shows the ladies posed together and he points to his sister who I am able to recognise as the mother of my childhood friends Helen and Carol.
“You didn’t have any Paddies?” I asked Tom, referring to migrant Irish labour. Tom explained to me that the flower picking gangs tended to be mostly women being from local farm labouring families that worked seasonally. Irish labouring gangs were largely brought in for heavier work such as potato and sugar beet harvest.
In the 1970’s I recall my friend’s mum having time off from work in the local pack house each year as the daffodils were picked because the sap from the stems in the pack house burnt her skin because she had developed an allergy to it. At that time daffodils were picked by a combination of local people, local gangs, and travelling gangs, the later including gypsies that would start in Cornwall picking daffodils, head north to Lincolnshire and end up in northern England and Scotland before doing a reverse journey picking fruit. I recall my grandfather selling a radio to one of these regular gypsy travellers on higher purchase, each month she sent the payment by post with a return post office address, the only payment she missed was the final payment and we figured the lady must have died. My point being is that although transient in nature, the various seasonal workers became known within the local community and were trusted, distrusted, respected and disrespected in line with people’s experience and prejudices. As daffodils were lifted and dried, whether legal or not, school children could get work bulb cleaning in the summer holidays; from about 14 you could get away with flower picking as the willingness and ability to bunk off school without repercussions permitted. It also has to be remembered, that unlike today, most pay was in cash and the ability to earn money “off the books” was welcomed.
However, times changed. In the post- war period the food industry, especially the likes of Geest and Smedley’s provided well paid production and packing work in increasing numbers. More wives and women worked full-time and labouring people and gangs on the land doing jobs like flower picking became less local.
The make up of daffodil pickers changed. The decimation of the coal and steel industries meant there was a steady stream of migrant labour from places like Doncaster, Durham and Sheffield in gangs. Often many of them would travel every day that work was available from Doncaster and Sheffield to pick flowers and do other gang work. To illustrate how desperate they were to work my mother’s cousin in Rotherham had five of her family of six unemployed at one point. Many Spaldonians at this point, especially those of my parent’s age, were quite parochial and regarded anyone with a different accent as “foreign”.
In 1983 I was helping my father deliver a large TV near Quadring Eaudyke when we passed a large daffodil field full of ladies picked in daffodils. To me they appear dressed inappropriately in saris and open toed sandals like tea pickers in a post-colonial PG tips publicity film. We were told later that gangs of “Indians” were brought in from Leicester not having a clue what work they were doing. An obvious sign of abuse that was being overlooked due to the need to get the crop in at low cost with a minimal time frame.
So we reach the 1990’s. I work for Barclays Bank in Holbeach and Long Sutton. As I drive to work I look at the fields and monitor the growth of the daffodils for as they start to be cropped I know I will need to start ordering substantially more cash to enable the local farmers to pay the seasonal gang labour. In 1989 we start to see a growth in the gangmaster from being small groups; often related, travelling the country or staying locally, changing crop work with the seasons; to being larger agencies, increasingly recruiting from abroad and also providing accommodation for that work force. In this area it heralded the first significant wave of migrants from one specific country into the South Holland area, in this case, South Africans.
Large groups of initially mostly white South African young women and men came over through agents for periods of up to a year depending upon their status. Many white South Africans had dual nationality and benefitted from the privilege of a British passport. This was followed by a trickle, and then a deluge of workers from Portugal, then Poland, then the rest of Eastern Europe over the next few decades. Gangmasters that provided accommodation could not go wrong as the rent was deducted from wages. This opened the door to abuse, fraud and even slavery.
An example of the type of fraud foreigners fell victim to I met first hand early one morning in Holland Market, Spalding in 1998 when I came across a young Polish lady asleep on a bench. She told me that she had paid 600 Euros in Poland to a British agency to come to Peterborough expecting accommodation and work only to find it a con. She spent the last of her spare money getting to Spalding looking for work. I phoned a Holbeach gangmaster that provided accommodation, gave her money for bus fare and directions. The gangmaster I knew provided her accommodation and subbed pay on account knowing that if she jumped I had agreed to recompense them.
There were significant groups of people that lost out to incoming migrant labour, and this is possibly pertinent to the current problems of labour shortage: The small family-centric gangs of about no more than two dozen people that moved from crop to crop making a good living for themselves whilst remaining in the area. This type of gang was decimated with only a few remaining locally. Th e other group that lost out were the roaming groups that followed the seasons, flower picking in Cornwall northward and then diverted to fruit picking up north following the season back down the country. Many of these were gypsies, if not Romany gypsies they were gypsies by design. To understand the fate of this group of travellers I recall a conversation I noted in 1998 in Holbeach with a young lady as she entered her final daffodil picking season in Lincolnshire:
“ I like coming in here, you always treat me and my family the same as everyone else that comes into this Bank, unlike most places. And you always remember my face.”
“Thank you, “ I said, “to be honest its your nose piercing and tattoo I remember, and that you change your hair colour each year.”
She laughed and then went on, “ You’ve helped me cash cheques for nearly ten years, but most people treat me like shit.”
She then went on to explain that she was a gypsy and whilst down in Cornwall flower-picking they had few issues in the Fens it had, “turned to shit” with attacks on their caravans and attacks and intimidation especially from East Europeans who called them “Roma scum” and they had had enough of it, so this would be their last season in the area.
The key to getting workers each season was the ability to pay cash. The whole need for reliable workers at short notice to pick a crop of daffodils cheaply at the right time (or any other crop for that matter) meant that farmers became unwitting accomplices to a black economy fed by their cash. Any one with local knowledge will be aware of those individuals that over time have been convicted of various offences from tax evasion, handling stolen goods, violent crime and at the worse end of the spectrum of offences of slavery and human trafficking. How many have avoided detection or conviction? Times have changed with real time reporting of PAYE, immigration laws, regulation of gangs and better internal regulation within the industry. But these are circumvented with false identities, gangs within gangs and sophisticated means supported by violence and intimidation.
The farmer solved his problem of short-term staffing and the consumer has benefitted from ridiculously cheap daffodils, but at what cost? Before I have a host of Fenland farmers claim that they only use pickers from reputable sources and that they follow anti-slavery audits and pay fees for such things – I do not dispute this – but I am not looking at this subject from the farmer’s point of view. Also, any farmer reading this will know the quality of these regulating systems vary from lip-service to full on inspections.
In 2003 I am driving near Holbeach when I stop as a group of people run across the road in front of me like rabbits, shortly followed by more official looking people and police in hot pursuit. What I was witnessing was an immigration raid on a gang of flower pickers. Talking to a farmer a few days later about this I asked him whether it bothered him that illegal immigrants might be working on flower picking. He admitted it did, but it was not something he could check upon as he did not know who the agency would send each day and all he needed was his flowers picking. He told me that in the case of the raid I had witnessed the agency had employed a third party to supply labour and that they would not do that again. It struck me that the farmer had not considered that two other people were taking a “cut” before those that were doing the job were being paid. But I do understand that such considerations may not be commercially viable – at least in the short term.
As a knowledgeable reader you may know that the Gangmasters Licencing Act of 2004 saw the formation of the Gangmaster and Labour Authority in April 2005 and that none of this could happen today. The reality is that the drivers of low price for product, in this case daffodils, and a short picking season create the same commercial pressures. Often regulation only increases paperwork and incentive “to be seen” to do the right thing and be compliant.
Sadly, the abuse continues based upon the following:
In December 2019 my daughter is doing indoor archery at Spalding Grammar School and I decide to walk into town on this cold December night. I was horrified at the number of homeless people I encountered. Whilst they were homeless for various reasons a group of five taking shelter in an archway off The Crescent had a particular relevance. They looked a sorry state and I bought them some cigarettes to gain their confidence so that I could talk to them. They were illegal immigrants and as such dare not ask for help as in doing so they risked having to agree to detention and returning to their country of origin. They had been here for two years and enjoyed working in the fields with their accommodation provided by their employer. This accommodation varied from multi-occupancy housing to outbuildings and sheds. I asked them to describe the sort of work they did and where they worked. It is clear that some of their employment was local to Spalding on local farms and pack houses. However, wet weather had resulted in work disappearing, and with it their accommodation. Their former boss had also vanished and they were stuck with no work, no money, no shelter, nowhere to live. Whilst not directly responsible it is a failure of the food and farming industry that this had happened.
I go back a little further to March 2018 and I stop by the side of the road near Cowbit as the verge is blocked by parked cars and a swarm of about 100 pickers are on a relatively small field. I call out to a guy that I recognise because he lives near me and ask him what is happening. He explains that there are far too many people for a field of this size, but all the agency cares about is cropping for as many farmers as possible (market share) as quickly as possible and disregards the need for him to have a full day’s productive work to make his day worthwhile. He said it was his last year of coming here as it was not worth his while to pick flowers. He explained that he no longer trusted farm work and would look for better work in a factory.
March 2020 I witnessed a similar occurrence on the A16 Spalding bypass. In this case it was a horrendously wet March, but as I looked across the field I counted over 80 flower pickers. I walked around the field and chatted to a couple of young ladies on the edge of the field. Because of the wet weather the window for picking flowers was tiny. This resulted in them having little work, but when work appeared loads were called in resulting in an hour or two’s work for many rather than a full day’s work for a few. It barely covered the cost of getting to the field and they were truly fed up with this treatment.
So I return to the article headlined in December 2021 “Millions of daffodils will rot if Brexit denies UK farmers foreign workers.” Clearly when you look at the history that I have described this is only part of the problem. That same article states that the best pickers can earn £30 an hour and claim an average of £14 an hour. But as you have seen from my above account, especially in recent years, such figures are misleading. If you read George Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Peer” you see him debunk similar claims of good pay made in the 1930’s when quoting piecework rates.
In blaming Brexit it is too easy for a farmer, or any other employer, to delegate responsibility for labour shortage to government and not challenge itself. If any employer really believes that concessions to Europeans to work in the UK is going to solve this issue, the rude awakening for them is that it simply will not. Eastern Europe has moved on. If we look to the rest of the world for cheap migrant labour as a solution this is also showing both lack of imagination, foresight and investment in people. Yes welcoming migrants to work here is a solution, but only if we pay them well and invest in their future for the mutual benefit of the employee and the business and treat them with equality and fairness and not as a temporary source of cheap labour.
Finally, anybody reading this thinking I am blaming farmers should consider this last picture of British parsnips and British Brussel sprouts being sold at 19p a bag and ask themselves, is this really good for British farming? Is it really good for British society? In buying vegetables at 19p a bag this Christmas are you part of the problem?