Centre for Rural Economy

Heidi Saxby

Heidi Saxby

‘I am not a number’: the commodification and wellbeing of seasonal agricultural workers

Email: H.Saxby1@newcastle.ac.uk

Supervisors: Dr Menelaos Gkartzios and Prof Alison Stenning 

Project overview

An ethnographic case study about seasonal agricultural workers in labour-intensive production of fruit and vegetables in Yorkshire, England.

Industry cost effectiveness relies on a flexible labour force, provided for many years by eastern European workers.

Such workers often adopt a ‘turnstile’ existence, characterised by moving back and forth between their home and the UK in response to work availability.

This ongoing transience and the precarity of the agricultural work may be detrimental to their wellbeing.

On-farm conditions can create additional wellbeing challenges, since workers typically do physically demanding, uncomfortable and tedious tasks and are socially isolated at work and in their temporary on-farm accommodation.

UK food production operates within tight economic margins and sometimes with punitive contracts, so labour may be producers’ only negotiable cost, leading to workers being treated as commodities.

This research suggests workers whose personal identity was obscured by their economic ‘worth’ felt their wellbeing was compromised, and that this disinclined them from returning to that farm in future years.

Returnee behaviour of workers appears to be mutually beneficial since farm efficiency is increased and workers and farmers both enjoy a more satisfying social experience.

Whilst significant for workers’ wellbeing and employment choices, there are also implications for the longer term viability of UK produced fruit and vegetables.

An existing labour shortfall in the industry has worsened since the EU referendum, with returnee workers numbers dropping significantly.

Farm business cycles are typically calculated in years rather than months and if access to labour is threatened farmers are less likely to commit to capital outlay to sustain or expand the business.