Then and now: Issues in Scottish agriculture through the lens of a former seasonal worker

Blog9 Mar 2021

By Iryna Petkevica, Fife Migrants Forum

I was born in Ukraine and have lived in the UK for more than 16 years. Before coming here, I was a student at the Agricultural University in Mykolaiv studying Food Technology.  Due to financial difficulties, in 2005 I decided to take a year out and come to the UK to work in agriculture as a seasonal worker. Work experience in another country was highly sought after by students and many wanted to take a part in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (SAWS) and to experience working on a UK farm. The scheme was also seen as a great opportunity to discover a new country and earn some money. However, soon after starting on the SAWS programme, I realised I lacked an understanding of it and was not aware of what was expected of me, of the living conditions nor of what a typical working day would be. However, I remember I was promised a good salary with the possibility of a bonus, just as the workers I have recently spoken to in farms across Scotland were promised.

I worked at a farm with more than 400 workers from different countries, mainly from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and some EU countries. We lived in a caravan park and our main job was picking berries. It was a very demanding job, which required a lot of physical and mental strength. The work was made more difficult by the lack of support and respect for us from the supervisory and management staff. As the farm workers that I interviewed confirmed, similar issues with work ethics still exist today, with reports of disrespectful comments, unfair division of work duties, lack of empathy and even unequal treatment.

I perfectly understood their issues and feelings as during my time as a seasonal worker, I also experienced various forms of discrimination and even abuse. For instance, I also worked at a potato farm where we were paid under the National Minimum Wage and were threatened with losing our jobs if we raised any complaints. Temporary workers still face the same issue today, without the opportunity to raise their concerns or speak about the problems they encounter in the workplace. During interviews with workers, they stressed that their voices were not being heard and that the issues they reported were rarely resolved. It is clear that in many cases, there was no effective communication between temporary workers and their supervisors and managers.

While I was conducting interviews, I tried to understand why workers are still experiencing the same difficulties across different farms that I experienced. As a worker on a temporary visa, I had very limited opportunities for engagement at my workplace. We were just cheap manpower, nothing more than this. We were told what needed to be done but nobody explained the details clearly enough and we had to figure things out for ourselves. “They say, we do, and no questions asked”  - this was the unwritten rule at the farm. For instance, during high season (July-August) we were required to work very long hours. We were not asked, just told. Nobody was interested in finding out how we felt and if we had agreed to stay in the fields for 12 hours every day. So we worked extra hours every day and those hours were not paid at the right rate. Furthermore, the piece rate was not explained to us clearly so we did not understand how it was established, determined, and calculated. These issues still persist today. The farm workers that I spoke to last summer complained to me about the requirement to work long hours without always being paid for it. They did not even know how much they had to pick each day, just like me all those years ago.

Now I am a British citizen and work for an organisation that promotes the human rights of newcomers to the country. My main interest in this research was based on my personal experience, willingness to help others and curiosity to find out if any updates had been made to the old seasonal workers’ policy and what (if any) differences the Government had introduced to the new Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme for 2020.

I was interested in this project because I am now an educated individual with solid work experience under my belt, a different immigration status and a range of skills that allow me to look at these issues from a different angle, also informed by my past experience as a temporary farm worker. As a student in my last year of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business and Human Resource Management, I am now better able to identify some of the farms’ shortcomings when it comes to HR matters. For instance, I realised that some farms practice top-down communication, which happens when workers are represented by supervisors with limited face-to-face communication with management. There was limited bottom-up communication, as the workers spoke about having little chance to make their views known on particular issues. This affected both temporary workers and long-term employees.

Another key issue I recognised is the lack of training for supervisors and management. Workers are assigned a supervisor’s position having had very limited training and no follow-up or upskilling training. Moreover, temporary seasonal workers come from a number of countries and from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, which means that the workforce is usually very diverse. In order to ensure fairness, dignity and respect, supervisors and managers should be provided with training on people management and workers’ rights, including equal opportunities and anti-discrimination practices, and supported to develop effective communication skills. All these changes are needed in order to ensure fairer recruitment and treatment of temporary seasonal workers.

Finally, through this research I also had the opportunity to speak with a farm owner. We sat down for three hours and discussed the wide range of problems that workers were experiencing at his farm. He recognised that these problems exist and many of the shortcomings at the farm. Furthermore, he agreed to make some changes in order to prevent these issues from happening again. At times, this conversation makes me slightly optimistic, thinking that at least at this farm, there is a possibility that future workers might not have to face the same issues that I and so many others since me have had to face.

I honestly hope he will keep his promise and that others will follow suit.

Iryna Petkevica is Preventing Human Trafficking Caseworker at Fife Migrants Forum. During the past year, she was part of the team that conducted FLEX-FMF research project on the risk of human trafficking for forced labour on the Seasonal Workers Pilot in the Scottish horticultural sector, which was led by independent consultant Caroline Robinson. Read the final report “Assessment of the risks of human trafficking for forced labour on the UK Seasonal Workers Pilot” here.