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Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The food processing industry & the reality of migration

As the next general election draws ever closer and the main political parties jostle for the popular vote, migration has once more emerged as a contentious political issue in the UK.

Migration expanded rapidly in the aftermath of EU expansion in 2004 and 2007, with some sectors of the economy drawing on increasing numbers of migrant workers to alleviate labour shortages. This is nothing new. The food processing industry has drawn on itinerant/ migrant labour for centuries and recent trends are more an intensification of old trends than the emergence of new ones. Temporary hard to fill vacancies are a central feature of food production and migrant workers have always been moored firmly to the bottom of the UK labour market.

Over recent decades, however, as power has drained away from food producers towards retail corporations and large supermarket chains, there has been a corresponding increase in the split between desirable and undesirable/ hard to fill jobs. Just as food production has intensified, so too have employment practices, with much work in the sector now paying less under worse conditions than it did previously. As food producers have been squeezed on price by the ‘big four’ supermarkets, and consumers have demanded ever more sophisticated, low-priced food, workers have in turn been squeezed by new management techniques and surveillance strategies that have made jobs in the sector less appealing.

Not surprisingly, the sector remains one of the most migrant dense in the UK. While domestic workers view work in the sector as ‘dirty, dangerous and demanding’, migrant workers take up opportunities to earn relatively well and improve their status in their home country. Even at a time of high unemployment, many recruitment agencies and employers continue to prioritise migrant workers over and above unemployed British workers because of differences in attitude. Despite attempts by the Coalition Government to relocate the long term unemployed to areas where there are jobs, it appears that the food processing sector will remain dependent on migrant workers for some time to come.

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