The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated with frightening speed how frivolous our modern society is, and how much we undervalue the people at the base of the pyramid: the ones who guarantee there’s food on the table. The centrality of food to our existence, its primacy among our activities, is unequivocal. Yet in a world in which millionaire celebrity athletes and stadium-filling musicians have suddenly found themselves surplus to requirements, we’re still not ready to give the people who feed us their just rewards.
The news from the UK that charter flights are flying in workers from Romania to pick fruit and vegetables in the midst of the current crisis, with the long shadow of Brexit looming behind, is a case in point. The story is a fascinating nexus of circumstances which symbolize the cold logic of profit, a force which does not seem at all threatened by the impact of COVID-19.
So why is it happening? The “recruitment crisis” in British agriculture may partly be blamed on COVID-19, but the total number of people who work in agriculture is less than half a million, or 1.5% of the workforce, as compared to the 4% of the workforce who are unemployed. There is no shortage of people who could do the work, but the determining factor is money. Who’ll do the most work for the least money? For G’s Growers, the multinational agricultural company who chartered the first flight from Romania to the UK, that’s the most important question.
In short: the agricultural industry is not willing to pay enough to attract British workers, because doing so would mean increasing prices in supermarkets. Something that the supermarkets, for their part, fight against with their enormous buying power, favoring the suppliers who will provide fruit and vegetables at the lowest prices. This isn’t a question of lazy Western workers who aren’t willing to do the jobs that the more industrious peoples of Eastern Europe will—a common narrative in the mythology of globalization—it’s a question of maximizing profit margins.
Beyond wages, there’s also a difference in how local workers and foreign workers can respond to mistreatment or poor working conditions: while the British worker may simply walk away from the job, or tell the press about bad practices in a workplace, but for an isolated foreign worker with no safety net, and who perhaps doesn’t speak the language well, there’s no such luxury.
This isn’t unique to the UK, either. The same thing is happening in Germany. And for the same reason. In the USA, meanwhile, the White House is working to “reduce wage rates for foreign guest workers on American farms” in order to help the farmers cope with the current crisis. Again and again, when costs need to be cut, it is the people at the bottom of the ladder who are easiest to target: in this case, foreign agricultural laborers will pay the price for the continued presence of cheap fresh produce in supermarket aisles.
As with so many developments in 21st century politics, the voices of protest come both from the left and the right, where a once-unthinkable alliance against globalization is solidifying. Workers’ rights advocates on the same side as the conservative anti-immigration lobby. Guess which one said this: “The whole way this nation produces food should be reexamined”?
This is the consequence of a decades-long race to the bottom, the same basic concept behind moving factories and call centers to wherever labor is cheapest. Except in this case, rich countries bring in foreign workers to pick their vegetables. The COVID-19 crisis and the almost total shutdown of international travel should, in theory, have been a shock to the system which pushed the agro-industry to rethink its reliance on cheap imported labor. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. As usual, there’s one rule for individuals, and quite another for big business.
There is a very real danger at hand, one that has already caused shockwaves throughout the world with the Brexit vote and the election of Trump. A danger which the COVID-19 crisis may exacerbate further: a return to nationalism. A return to hard borders, nativism, persecution, fear: us against them, and not with them. Where increasing levels of inequality are blamed on the outsider, the foreigner. Indignation at downward social mobility is righteous, and necessary, but the often xenophobic reactions are both misguided and deeply damaging. We need the opposite of that: international solidarity among the victims of globalization.
Slow Food has long fought for the survival and restoration of local food cultures, starting with the small-scale farmers who are the guardians of our priceless gastronomic heritage. But they’re not the only victims of the corporatized, industrialized food system, which is extending its reach during the COVID-19 shutdown through the closure of farmers’ markets and record sales for supermarkets. The underpaid workers propping up the agro-industry are putting their health at risk, and certainly not by choice.
There’s nothing new about this: as far back as 1834, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported from the UK to Australia for fighting back against a wage cut on a farm in Dorset, England, a cause which was influential in the development of the workers’ rights movement. The legacy of their struggle lives on through organizations like the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Making Change at Walmart in the USA, the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, La Via Campesina and of course, Slow Food. As economic pressure on the poorest members of society—including agricultural and other food chain workers—increases in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, stronger and broader synergies between these disparate organizations united by common goals will be more important than ever.
As difficult as it may seem in the current situation, we all have a responsibility to support our local farmers who don’t profit from the exploitation of their workers. We have a responsibility to reject the products of industrial agriculture wherever possible, and to inform ourselves of the supply chains we use to stock our kitchens. The COVID-19 emergency will pass, but the resilience of good, clean and fair food systems depends on our support, starting now. The alternative is to hand over complete control to a handful of corporations for whom shareholder satisfaction comes before working conditions, public health, and the environment.