by Chris Bertram on July 8, 2003

A common device in the broad-canvassed social-realist novel is to have events throw together people who don’t seem to belong in the same universe, in such a way as to reveal the deeper social reality. Bonfire of the Vanities is a good modern example (why was the film so bad?). Such a real-life even occurred yesterday when an express train hit a minibus in central England. On the train were the Bishop of Hereford and a Tory MP, in the minibus were men variously described as arabs and as Iraqi Kurds. Several of those in the bus were killed and the TV news thought the incident sufficiently serious to send crews to the scene. They interviewed some young women who had east European accents and probably came from Poland or the Baltics.

These people had all been drawn to Worcestershire by the promise of work. The agribusiness that hired them obtained their labour from gangmasters based in cities like Birmingham. Perhaps some of the shoppers who bought their broccoli or cabbages did so because they had a preference for “English produce” over the sugar-snap peas flown from Zambia. Who knows? Anyway, those fields are not tilled by cap-tipping yokels with pieces of straw between their teeth living in tied cottages.

The Times report of the incident blames the supermarkets for forcing low prices on producers. Certainly the domination of the British food market by a very few small chains – Sainsbury, Tesco, Walmart – puts the squeeze on farmers, but the firms who employed these Kurds and Poles would surely be trying to minimize costs anyway. These new migrants are, in any case, just the functional descendants of the Irish who built the railways and roads, the West Indians who drove the buses and the Pakistanis who worked in the textile trade.

I’m surely not writing this to say that it is bad that Latvians and Iraqis are here (though the ways they get treated may often be very bad indeed.) I want, rather, just to notice, that, though yesterday’s incident exposed something of the real workings of Britain and the world, that won’t prevent most of us (me included, unless I think about it) slipping back into a false and illusory view of the English countryside. Afghans, Poles and Estonians who keep us fed are usually invisible – and they will be again.



Richard Brown 07.08.03 at 1:16 pm

This is the kind of article that stops practically anyone from a working-class background
identifying with the ‘left’.

The people you wrote about are not ‘invisible’ but actualy the opposite. They are hyper-visible. You cannot pick fruit in the dark. When hundreds if not thousands o foreign workersf people suddenly appear it gets noticed.
It’s the economics that puzzles. One of the men interviewed after the train crash was an Iraqi Asylum Seeker from Birmingham. This means he is recieving benefits plus housing plus health care and legal representation for free. He then works illegally on top of this. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

Also if you know anything about economic history you will know that was a long struggle to get the gangmaster system eradicated. And by the way it is not a coincidence that the gangmasters are Asian. Many ethnic minority ‘entrepreneurs’ do not believe in worker’s rights.The foreign farm workers are paid a pittance but the gangmaster is also paid (aside from ripping them off for ‘tax’ and housing. If they paid the workers direct it would be better all round.

But the real question for left and right is this: just how far can the criminalisation of the British economy go before there is a major political crisis?

PS: believe it or not ethnic minorities are not the only people in Britain who have done or still do, poorly paid work .


Perry de Havilland 07.08.03 at 1:46 pm

Speaking as another person who does not believe in “worker’s rights” (there are only individual human rights), I really do not understand the point this article is making. As it happens I am also in favour of completely open borders to peaceable entry for anyone.


Chris Bertram 07.08.03 at 2:42 pm

I wasn’t trying to grind any particular political axe, Perry, just making the observation I said I was making about accidents and disasters suddenly revealing what is going on in the world and challenging our unreflective picture of that.


Charlie B. 07.08.03 at 2:58 pm

That sounds like an update of Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City. What is interesting is that the economic and political conflicts will be happening, in Worcestershire and elsewhere, whether or not “we” are “aware” of them or not. So is the idea that by learning the “real” state of affairs we should try to keep our hands clean? or that we should engage in consumer choice to exert influence? or that we should be able to use the issues to distance ourselves from and throw into a bad light those who do now know about the “true” state of affairs and do nothing?


chase 07.08.03 at 5:08 pm

Sounds like an update of The Canterbury Tales to me. And why is it, charlie b., that we can’t be aware of what’s real and true without putting those words in quotation marks?


Iain Murray 07.08.03 at 8:24 pm

I have no real point to this comment except to say that the Bishop of Hereford is my old college chaplain, who was also a very good slow bowler who used to give me a lift to and from our cricket matches. Funny how such incidents can connect us personally to the reality we knew nothing of.

Or did he become Bishop of Hertford? One letter makes all the difference.


drapetomaniac 07.09.03 at 1:52 am

>>This means he is recieving benefits plus housing plus health care and legal representation for free. He then works illegally on top of this. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

How odd to have have working illegally in the farm sector at a poorly paid job made analogous to eating cake.


Guessedworker 07.09.03 at 11:38 am

You are not a son of the soil then, Chris?
Seasonal workers are a product of the largely mechanised nature of modern agriculture. The number of crops requiring hand harvesting, however, is slowly dwindling. When I was young it was popular for students to pick hops in Kent. But the hop industry has been mauled by the fad for lager and, anyway, new dwarf hops are machine harvested. No doubt the day will come when agriculture requires very few seasonal workers. In the interim there is no great moral lesson to learn from them beyond the one that the market is not moral.


Edward Hugh 07.09.03 at 1:29 pm

Despite the apparent naivety of the premiss (that this situation is hidden: seems like we’re back with the ‘purloined letter’), this post is rather interesting. So this is happening in the UK too. I had imagined that extensive use of undocumented workers was efectively a mediterranean phenomenon – since the arrival of the euro has pushed up ‘official’ labour costs enormously (the so-called harrod-samuelson-balassa effect, god forbid) many mainstream economic activities only continue to survive using undocumented labour.

The textile industry is a case in point. A chinese friend of mine tells me there are about 15,000 undocumented chinese workers in the Barcelona industrial belt. She knows this because she is asked by the courts to work as an interpreter whenever one of the workers has problems with the law. Note that these problems NEVER relate to work. Here there is no control.

Roughly the same is true of a Pakistani community of about 10,000 just off Las Ramblas. We have numbers for all this since the current spanish law gives undocumented workers access to health (for everyone) and education (for children) if you register with the town hall.

I have been studying the same process with the arrival of Bulgarian workers in rural Spain.

It was fashionable in the 80’s in the UK to talk of de-industrialisation. In the case of Bulgaria this has taken a new twist. What we have are highly educated people – schoolteachers, dentists, engineers etc. – coming to work picking peppers and oranges. The reason, in Bulgaria a schoolteacher earns 120 euros a month, while picking peppers on an undocumented basis they can earn 500 euros a month – working ten hours a day in the blazing sun.

Another important detail, this migration is also partly provoked by an important pension reform – pensions are now 50 euros a month – which means they have to come out to send money home. Look out Germany!!!

What seems to me to be important is to understand that this process is not simply incidental. Krugman recently asked why indentured servitude was not being re-intoduced, I argued here:

that it effectively already has been. One of my blog readers astutely made the point that in the absence of a gold standard, what we effectively have – via the globalisation of labour market reforms – is a ‘labour standard’. And we are about to make all the same mistakes as were made in the inter-war years with gold.

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