Alex Eastham, Impactt Senior Project Manager
The UK last week voted to leave the EU, a decision that sent political, economic and social shockwaves throughout the UK and globally. As we reflect on a country divided, we look at the food industry in the UK to help us understand some of the underlying tensions of immigration, a concern many feel led to this historic decision by voters.
I’ve spoken to hundreds of workers in the food sector in the UK, a sector characterised by its reliance on migrant labour, from picking soft fruits through to packing ready meals. I’ve heard the hopes and dreams of Bulgarian workers who have been in the country two weeks, Polish workers who have lived here for seven years and the frustrations of British workers who have been working in the same factory since school.
In the ethical trade industry we tend to focus on the most vulnerable; the migrant worker with no language skills or the agency worker underpaid by their labour provider. These are very real issues and it is right that we should prioritise the worst problems.
However, we have never really listened enough to the concerns of those on the receiving end of migration. British workers tell me; “I’m the only English on the line now, we can’t even share a joke as they don’t speak the language”, “No-one listens to us anymore.” These aren’t the concerns of racists, these are the frustrations of working people who have had to contend with huge changes to their working environments and feel left behind. These are people who feel they have lost their identity, who feel let down by government spending cuts, who feel ignored in society. Inside the factory they have faced the continued erosion of their benefits as employers contend with shrinking margins in a competitive industry.
These are people who have told me; “I never dreamt of being a factory worker.”
So what is the result of this? In many factories the workforce is divided, does not connect and does not communicate. Tensions can sometimes build into more serious issues such as racism. This too often can create an environment where migrant workers feel unwelcome and British workers feel sidelined. This is a huge challenge for employers and has a big impact on business.
So what do we do now? We must focus our efforts on positive migration; for those that arrive and those that are impacted by their arrival. We need to lobby for government leadership on the promotion of job quality, such as Wales’ good job indicators. We need better government support to help migrant workers integrate into local communities with the right resources.
At a site level, we need more employers to prioritise social integration, providing their workforce with the tools to integrate. They should promote English language as a way to reduce vulnerability of migrant workers but also help build communication between employees. We can then start to create an environment with increased understanding and increased respect.