- 17 Apr 20
The controversy over migrant workers arriving from Bulgaria to pick fruit in Keelings has revealed a racist aspect to Irish culture. But there are issues about wages, workers’ rights activists say.
Controversy over the arrival of migrant strawberry-pickers from Bulgaria to work at Keelings Fruit Farm in north County Dublin continued to rumble on this afternoon.
A statement from the Taoiseach’s office earlier today pointed out that seasonal – usually migrant – workers are critical to the agricultural sector “in terms of harvesting, planting and tending functions.”
However, workers’ rights activists who spoke to Hot Press have argued that the issue highlights the severe working conditions and low wages available to fruit pickers and migrant workers generally. This is – and indeed has long been – an international issue. As students of Irish history will know, as late as the 1970s, Irish labourers went to Scotland seasonally to pick potatoes, becoming known there as tattie-hokers.
That we are in a different era entirely is clear. Now, the seasonal, migrant workers travel to Ireland for work.
However, Keelings – Ireland’s biggest suppliers of fresh fruit – came under fire, after a video was posted on social media, which showed a group of strawberry-pickers who had been flown in from Bulgaria, arriving at Dublin Airport.
That there is more than an element of racism in much of the subsequent commentary on the issue was highlighted by the singer Sinéad O’Connor (pictured), in a social media post earlier today.
In a statement in response to the criticism, Keelings confirmed that "a number of skilled horticulture staff have returned to Ireland to work." The arrival of the workers was used, however, to stir up fears that the health of members of the public was being put at risk, amid the Covid-19 emergency.
"Ryanair and Dublin Airport can confirm that all regulations were adhered to,” Keelings statement added. “They were taken straight to their housing.
"In accordance with HSE guidelines they cannot work for 14 days after their arrival, and their movements are restricted. We will take care of these colleagues as we take care of all of our people, permanent or temporary."
The racist nature of much of the online commentary was highlighted by Green Party councillor for Cork City South-Central, Lorna Bogue. Speaking to Hot Press, she said that public anger toward migrant fruit-pickers is utterly "misdirected."
"This happens every year,” she stated. “These are agricultural workers. The job was advertised in Ireland, and people just weren't willing to take on those positions.
"This is a familiar story,” she added, “When she was young, my mum went to Germany to pick fruit, because of the economic situation in Ireland at the time.”
The reality is that, across the wealthier countries in the EU, and the UK, most work of this kind is carried out by migrant workers. With employment in Ireland running in or around 95% before the Covid-19 pandemic, this was not the kind of work that Irish people wanted to do.
Lorna Bogue said that it was disheartening to see some Fianna Fáil TDs spreading misinformation in a way that is designed to turn people wrongly against migrant workers.
Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSherry, TD for Sligo, Leitrim, South Donegal & North Roscommon – a constituency in which a disproportionate number of serious anti-immigrant incidents have taken place – had suggested that the workers were gratuitously shipped to the country adding "unnecessary risk for frontline staff in Dublin Airport and the flight crew onboard." That there might rather have been a risk for the workers arriving in Ireland – where Covid-19 is far more prevalent than in Bulgaria – didn’t seem to strike the Fianna Fáil TD. There have to date been just 40 Covid-19 related deaths in Bulgaria – a tenth of the number recorded in Ireland.
The reality is that, alongside food distribution, food production is – for obvious reasons – considered an essential service during the Covid-19 emergency. That much was freshly underlined by the Government’s intervention in the controversy today.
However, Lorna Bogue was critical for a different reason, telling Hot Press that fruit-picking is a thankless and underpaid job. Ms Bogue said that the public should really be angry at what she described as a "corrupt system that requires the exploitation of workers to function."
"The Covid-19 crisis has shown that people who are doing essential work in our society are hugely undervalued in our capitalist system," she added.
Meanwhile, workers' rights advocate and General Secretary of the Connolly Youth Movement, Alex Homits, also told Hot Press that it is time for the public to learn that migrant fruit-pickers grapple with what he believes are excruciating working conditions and low pay.
“Newly-arrived workers often tend to know little about their rights and entitlements,” he said, and he appealed to Keeling’s that they should pay the workers a wage of €15 an hour.
Mr Homits, who is himself of Eastern European origins, said he is aware that Keeling’s has been bringing in what he described as ‘cheap labour’ from the region for years, as locals are loathe to take what is low-paid and challenging work.
"Covid-19 has merely identified what wealthy companies like Keeling’s have been doing for some time," he said.
No one from Keelings was available to comment. Below is the full text of the statement they issued today, April 17th on the issue of migrant workers.
Statement from Keelings
“As a family business Keelings acknowledge the concerns of people and fully understand the reasons for these concerns. We also acknowledge that our communication to the public should have been both faster & more detailed during this Covid crisis.
“Keelings has been growing and packing fruit and vegetables for the Irish market since the 1920s. We continue to operate from our farm at St Margaret’s in north County Dublin.
The business currently employs about 1,700 people in growing, harvesting, importing & packing fresh produce and in sales, distribution and management. During the main Irish fruit and vegetable season from April to October, we employ temporary horticultural workers to harvest – about 900 over the season. This is demanding work requiring a high level of dexterity and product knowledge.
“Up until the late 1990’s, we recruited most of our seasonal workers locally, but over the last 20 years there has been less interest from Irish people in this work. For the past 20 years, most of our seasonal work has been done by experienced horticultural workers from other EU countries, often from Poland, Latvia and now from Bulgaria. They typically come to Ireland for six months.
“This year we recruited in the usual manner over the winter and commenced our job offers at the end of October 2019 to experienced horticultural workers to ensure our Irish harvest. Up to 70% of our seasonal workers return to us year after year. Like other businesses, we changed our plans and operations in response to the evolving COVID-19 crisis. As the pandemic crisis emerged we considered both local staff and international staff and made the decision that we most likely needed both to ensure we could continue to supply the Irish market. We have advertised locally over 2 weeks ago and up until last evening we had 27 applications which falls significantly short of our labour needs. Today we have received a further 13 applications so far. We hope to employ as many of these people as possible.
“Keelings assists in finding accommodation for our seasonal workers across a number of locations, and provides bus transport to our farm at St. Margaret’s each working day (i.e. Monday-Saturday). All the workers are protected by local employment legislation up to & including EU working time directives. We are proud of our relationship with the seasonal employees, most of whom return each year and some of whom have been coming to us for more than 10 years. We want to assure the public that we are following the HSE & HPSC guidelines as they continue to evolve.
“On Monday April 13, 189 seasonal workers flew on a charter flight from Sofia to Dublin. All had been health screened by a doctor before they travelled to Sofia airport where they were temperature checked before entry. Ryanair can confirm that all regulations were adhered to. They were taken straight to their housing. In accordance with HSE guidelines, they cannot work for 14 days after their arrival and their movements are restricted. We will take care of these colleagues as we take care of all of our people, permanent or temporary. They will be subject to further medical screening before they start work at Keelings. We will continue to consult with the HSE and other appropriate agencies to ensure both our staff and the communities they live in remain safe.
“As part of Ireland’s essential food supply chain, our role is to provide good, healthy and affordable food to the people of Ireland, produced sustainably and safely.
“Keelings appreciates, acknowledges and unreservedly thanks the public for their concern. We really hope that this statement serves to clarify and reassure.”