The impact of working and living conditions in agriculture on workers’ emotional and mental wellbeing: a reflection

Blog30 Mar 2021

By Margarita Permonaite, Fife Migrants Forum

On 16th March 2021, FLEX and Fife Migrants Forum published a research report on the risk of forced labour for Scottish agricultural workers on the Seasonal Worker Visa. While the report presents important evidence and many findings worthy of discussion and debate, some of the more subtle, yet crucially important aspects of this year-long outreach and research project require special attention. As a human rights advocate, I feel a moral duty towards the workers I met along the way, to share my reflections and call on employers, decision-makers, and those representing workers to recognise the impact of working and living conditions in agriculture on workers’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

Throughout this year conducting outreach with farm workers, I noticed how easily and openly they would share their experiences with me, often expressing relief after talking to someone who would listen to them, as they felt that they had no one else to ask for help and nowhere to turn. This level of trust was possible, to some extent, thanks to our shared immigration and socio-political background. Being a migrant researcher who came from a former Soviet Union country allowed me to build rapport with the workers: I was perceived by them as someone they could relate to, someone that would understand them. I would listen to participants as they explained how they felt, how the issues we were studying impacted them. Having someone to talk to seemed to have a therapeutic effect on many of them as many of them felt alone and isolated strangers in a new country.

As I recorded interviews and stories of the farm workers, I would also keep track of the issues they needed help with, which covered various aspects of their work and life. They would go from sharing their experiences and views to enquiring about underpayments, asking whether better living conditions were possible, or pleading for the equipment they needed to work. Often workers could not understand the dynamics at work. 

Confusion was a big theme surrounding many of these conversations, but the most common issue raised by them was simply the lack of work and consequently, lack of earnings. “I want to work”, “we want to work”, “we came here to work” - these were, by far, the phrases I heard the most during this experience. The people I interviewed came to Scotland, “a queen of Western democracy” as they called it, with high expectations to work hard and take money back home, but they were not given enough work. This was a constant source of stress and frustration for workers, as they saw the end of their visa period quickly approaching while their expectation to return home with earnings for their families faded away. “My baby was born today but I sit here and have no idea if I will bring any money home”, one worker said. 

This lack of work seemed, in some cases, to be imposed by farmers as a penalty for workers not meeting their targets, which proved difficult for them particularly when there was not enough crop or when they weren’t provided with the appropriate equipment. “Did you not pick enough? A day off tomorrow”, “Not happy? Two days off then”. Every day off meant a loss for the workers, loss of earnings, loss of time, and increased stress and pressure as they had to pay for their accommodation.

A worker said to me once “we do not feel like human beings here, we are slaves…I am the slave”. When I asked him and others why they called themselves “slaves”, they would speak about feeling trapped in “the big money-making machinery”, where farmers enjoyed counting the quantities of picked crops, while the workers counted their pennies to pay for living expenses. It was shocking to find workers who saw themselves only as cheap labour. Young men and women who expressed feeling totally humiliated and degraded, sat with their heads down, finding it hard to make eye contact.

I often had the impression that, having exhausted the very few avenues for support available to them, they perceived us as their only hope, and I often felt a moral responsibility to help them find answers. However, when trying to support workers to access information and voice their concerns I also faced resistance, dismissive responses, and lack of will. As a caseworker seeking to help prevent Modern Slavery, I often wondered whether this was because farm workers, being here only temporarily, do not fall under the ‘deserving’ list.

This was the most difficult part of the data collection, to manage workers’ expectations while they felt so desperate. Not because their expectations were too high but because they were putting all their hopes on us. I would find desperate messages that were sent late the night before asking if anyone could go to a farm to check the working and living conditions or help them with a crack in a caravan which forced them to sleep with their coats on. I was prepared to provide information and initial support, but I was not expecting to encounter such a high level of need and such little interest from those benefiting from their work. Workers would often feel a hopeless sense of injustice and disempowerment.

Fear was another important presence throughout this experience. Workers were scared that if they disclosed all the problems they had, they could be penalised and things could get worse for them. Even during the interviews, workers would often seem anxious, as if they were constantly weighing up the benefits of speaking about these issues against the prospect of losing the little income they had. Some would constantly look around to make sure nobody was watching or recording what they were saying. “There are many people that would like to speak to you, but they are scared”, somebody told me. They were afraid not only of the farmers but also of their co-workers, who could report them in a desperate move to gain access to more work. The fear of losing their job would quickly be linked to many other fears, the fear of deportation, of experiencing discrimination or harassment at work, or the fear of remaining in a constant state of stress caused by financial insecurity and poor living conditions.

These issues had a significant impact on workers’ emotional and mental wellbeing. Many talked about their deteriorating mental health and how they were developing symptoms of depression, having problems sleeping, or anxiously biting their nails. It is very sad to think that the workers I spoke to took these experiences and memories back home. 

Unsurprisingly, when asked, none of my interviewees said that they would want to come back to the UK.

Our only hope is that by raising awareness of some of these issues through sharing the findings of the research and giving voice to the experiences of these workers, some changes may be made to improve their conditions.

Margarita Permonaite is Preventing Human Trafficking Caseworker and Outreach Researcher at Fife Migrants Forum. During the past year, she was part of the team that conducted FLEX-FMF research project on the risk of human trafficking for forced labour on the Seasonal Workers Pilot in the Scottish horticultural sector, which was led by independent consultant Caroline Robinson. Read the final report “Assessment of the risks of human trafficking for forced labour on the UK Seasonal Workers Pilot” here.