For and against students getting the crops in | Letters | Environment

Published on February 18, 2018

Readers respond to an earlier letter suggesting that students should replace migrant farm workers after Brexit

A backpacker picks apples during harvest in a fruit orchard.
Photograph: Robert Lang Photography/Getty Images

In the agricultural sector there is a shortfall of 4,300 jobs with a tiny proportion of the population working on farms. Yet Aileen Hammond (Letters, 15 February) demands that 2.28 million students in higher education descend on to the farms of this country every summer and winter. I’m afraid a few second homes she wants to be made available isn’t going to be quite enough to house these students.

I spent my vacations from university volunteering, getting work experience, writing dissertations – all of which has allowed me to contribute to the common good. There are also lots of other important and meaningful seasonal jobs that depend on the student vacation workforce. Forced labour of students on to farms would play havoc with these sectors and merely shift the labour problem elsewhere.

Conscripting people to do particular roles in society, except in times of emergency, leads to an exploited and disinterested workforce.
Greg Patton

Even if we assume that Aileen Hammond’s letter is tongue-in-cheek ironic, if we leave aside the references to “national service” and any suggestion of coercion, Ms Hammond may be on to something.

Students have almost always needed to work during the long vacation, even if the maintenance grants and free education that my generation received precluded the need to work during term time. I spent two summers during my university days working in a camping supplies shop that ran almost entirely on student labour, and the NUS advertised every year for students willing to work as fruit pickers (often with accommodation provided) or in catering and hospitality. My first job after graduation in 1970 found me living in Brighton which, like most seaside towns, could only function at all because of the pool of students looking for the chance to earn some money to supplement their grants while having a good time.

Rather than growers complain that the reduction in the supply of cheap EU labour will result in food rotting, unpicked, in the ground, they could take the initiative and contact the universities and student unions and actively recruit the seasonal staff they need.

I also agree that rich students should not be allowed to opt out. I don’t think it matters if they use the money they earn to go skiing or partying – the important thing is to recognise that there is a pool of labour available.
Colin Marsh
Thurmaston, Leicestershire

A group of friends and I spent the summer of 1969, between our undergraduate and postgraduate courses, picking fruit on a large Norfolk farm. A huge majority of the pickers were from continental Europe, including Scandinavians and Turks, and this was several years before the UK joined the EEC.

One wonders what arrangements were in place for work permits and so forth for casual workers from Europe at that time. Perhaps such agreements and understanding could be reinstated in the event of the potential lack of overseas labour in the agricultural sector after Brexit.
Dr David M Etheridge
Solihull, West Midlands

What goes around comes around. Aileen Hammond’s letter reminds me of the student farm camps I went to in 1949 and 1950. There was no need for draconian legislation. The National Union of Students, the Student Labour Federation and other student bodies organised the camps, and students just came. We slept in tents, had a field kitchen in a barn and temporary loos, the fruit was picked, a good time was had by all, and the campers earned a bit of extra cash to go travelling, live it up or whatever.
Betty Birch

In the late 40s during school holidays and weekends, lorries would turn up at the ends of our working-class streets and take pre-teen and teenagers to dig potatoes pick strawberries etc. I always felt deprived as my mother who thought us a cut above “that sort of thing” wouldn’t allow it.
Joyce Blackledge
Formby, Merseyside

It is ironic that beneath the several letters rightly decrying indentured labour of freed slaves in Britain’s colonial past, there was another letter suggesting that indentured labour for university students is the answer to our agricultural workforce issues.
James Ward-Campbell
Long Whatton, Leicestershire

Why force people out into the fields? Develop the land into small-holdings. Some people might like a bit of crofting. Townies could visit to help with the harvest.
Tom Frost

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