Blog: Botching the migrant labour system

Catherine Sleep | 19 May 2004

Tackling the problem of illegal immigrants working in the food sector, often for ruthlessly exploitative gang masters, has risen rapidly up the UK government’s agenda since the tragedy in which 20 cockle pickers died earlier this year.

Trouble is, sometimes a knee-jerk reaction can do more harm than good. Here’s a case in point: for years many UK fruit farms have been quite legally employing student workers from Bulgaria and Romania. They are recruited for specific jobs to help at harvest time and arrive on short-term visas.

But at the end of March Home Secretary David Blunkett cancelled the scheme that provides the students’ visas, which has been running since World War II. They already have work permits and jobs to go to, but now cannot get visas to travel. Growers, many of whom recruited their fruit-picking workforce back in the autumn, are anxious that their fruit will go unpicked – and therefore unsold.

If supermarkets are forced to buy even more of their produce from overseas suppliers, will they come back to their UK suppliers another year?

This is a kick in the teeth for fruit farmers who have made sure they followed all the regulations to the letter and recruited workers with the right papers. They may now find themselves forced to rely on workers whose credentials they cannot accurately trace. That leaves them open to prosecution, and illegal immigrants open to exploitation.

Not ideal, is it?

UPDATE 20th May: Visas of this type have been reinstated. Hurrah.

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