Why is government policy making the quality of jobs in Britain worse?

The lack of seasonal workers from other countries to pick fruit and vegetables highlights a huge flaw in the government's immigration strategy. 

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You know, I really can’t remember a spring like this. Almost every day in London the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and my living room windows turn my flat into a lovely, sunny cross between a greenhouse and a microwave. Perhaps the memory cheats. Perhaps the lockdown-led decline in air pollution has – through some mechanism I don’t understand and am even now entirely making up, like the President of the United States talking about medicine – led to nicer weather. 

Or perhaps the universe really has contrived to provide us with the nicest spring weather on record during the first spring in history we’re not really allowed out to enjoy any of it.

Luckily, though, our ever-loving Tory government has got your back, and has found a way for you to enjoy the sunshine, get some exercise and, hey, even learn a little something, too. On Tuesday night the environment secretary George Eustice launched the “Pick for Britain” website, on which you can find a job gathering fruit.

“Every year,” he said, “large numbers of people come from countries such as Romania or Bulgaria to take part in the harvest.” Except obviously this year, that’s not happening because half the world is in lockdown, no one wants to get on a plane, and, anyway, nobody is falling over themselves to volunteer for manual labour in the coronavirus capital of Europe. 

As a result, he went on, the government estimated that only a third of the normal foreign land army would be available. And so, “This year we will need to rely on British workers to lend a hand to help bring that harvest home.”

Eustice – it’s a difficult name, isn’t it, brings to mind the spoilt brat from the Narnia books – suggested that the millions of furloughed workers currently being paid by the government not to go to work may instead wish to consider doing hard labour in a field with other potential virus-carriers. Whether the minister himself has considered volunteering is a question which remains, alas, unanswered.

There’s a lot to unpick here. Why government websites are always so bad that the moment they launch they fall over, as this one inevitably did (surely the traffic from snarky journalists can’t have been that huge?). Why anybody thought that the sight of Prince Charles promising his social inferiors “hard graft” might work as encouragement, rather than, y’know, the exact opposite. (“Many of our normal routines and regular patterns of life are being challenged,” he said, in a video posted to Twitter. If I was the heir to the throne I would perhaps think twice about encouraging people to disrupt the regular patterns of life, an impulse that has not historically ended well for monarchies.)

But the thing I keep finding my mind catching on is the fact that the government has got us into this situation entirely deliberately.

Because the pandemic is not the only reason why recruitment has become harder this year. Romania and Bulgaria are, you’ll recall, members of the European Union. Britain no longer is, and a very big reason for that is because a sizeable chunk of the electorate wanted to end freedom of movement and reduce European migration. Okay, we’re still in transition; but there was always going to come a point at which suddenly the armies of workers on which British agriculture relies was no longer forthcoming. That is quite literally what we voted for. All that the pandemic has done is bring that moment forward a bit.

Recruitment agency Concordia recently reported that, out of 36,000 enquiries into fruit picking jobs, only 112 actually accepted them. There may be many reasons for that: these jobs are by definition far from population centres, so aren’t terribly convenient; they don’t pay that well; maybe the entirety of British society has simply had too many avocados and so we don’t know we are born. But whatever the explanation, it’s abundantly clear that these are not jobs that native born Brits are chomping at the bit to do.

Yet the government’s immigration policy will explicitly prevent anyone else from doing them. It offers no route for “low-skilled” migrants into the country, and to qualify you’ll need to be paid at least £25,600, not a salary that long days in the fields are likely to pay. To put it another way: the government has quite deliberately designed an immigration system which will allow companies to import foreigners for well-paying skilled jobs while reserving the crap ones for Brits.

Said Brits, quite obviously, do not want to do those jobs, and it seems likely a lot of strawberries are to go unpicked this year, no matter how many inspiring speeches Prince Charles makes. Yet this, the government for some reason firmly believes, is exactly what we voted for.

So how have we got to a point where, as a matter of deliberate government policy, the quality of jobs in Britain is getting worse?

Jonn Elledge is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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