3 November 1995



In most careers a person can expect to be financially and socially more secure after 20 years – to see some tangible improvement in living standards after working hard for so long. But for the farmworker and his family the reality is often disappointingly different. Tessa Gates met a wife who feels the farmworkers lot is not a happy one

HELEN and Andrew are the first to say there are good and bad employers in farming. In 20 years they have experienced both but on an agricultural wage there seems to be little reward from either for hard work and expertise. They are now so disillusioned that Andrew is leaving the farm work he loves but no longer can afford to do.

The couple have reached this point, like so many others in their situation, as their children have become teenagers.

"It has really destroyed a part of me watching Andrew running on the spot after five years of getting qualifications and 20 years of hard work," says Helen (names have been changed to protect the couples identity).

"My husband works for just above what we could get on benefits. Our children cant be supported through college or university on a farmworkers wage – we cant afford to help even with driving lessons and the other things parents would expect to do for their family. We are no different to farmers in wanting something a little better for our children than we have had; our dreams for our children are the same as theirs.

"There are no prospects for the majority of farm workers. Even after years of service you find yourself with no savings, no house and at the mercy of the county council for a home when you retire," says Helen, who has always supported her husbands choice of career. "I have actually overheard two farmers wives say their husbands had decided not to give the workers a rise as they wouldnt know what to do with it," she says.

"There is tremendous snobbery towards farmworkers. You are regarded as stupid, unambitious and you darent offer an opinion on how to do something – the farmer doesnt like it if you know more than him."

Andrews career got off to a good start with a considerate employer straight from school. Keen to improve his prospects he then went to college, where he gained an HND (credit) in agriculture and a credit pass in business management. His specialist interest is cattle breeding and nutrition.

"People want to employ the best and they advertise for someone with qualifications, enthusiasm and experience but they dont want to pay for these. I think we were guilty of thinking that once he got his HND we would live happily ever after," says Helen. Certainly they have a strong marriage but it hasnt been an easy life.

"Our children were happy kids but they missed out on Andrews time – every Christmas and bank holiday he had to work. When they went to play school he had to use his breakfast break to run them there and his lunch break to bring them back because I couldnt drive or afford the lessons."

"It is a struggle and I would like to know what the divorce rate is for farmworkers as I have met many wives who are not really happy. One woman said it is not an industry for married couples, because of the life-style and the money."

Like most farm workers, Andrew has had his share of changing jobs. That means changing homes – usually miles away from the last one and from friends and family. The children are uprooted from school and the whole family has to start afresh – and often its through redundancy, not choice.

"Once we were made redundant a week before Christmas and asked to move out on Christmas Eve. Farmers dont seem to worry how you will manage when they want to get rid of you but always make your last month terrible if you are moving to a better job – only one has been pleased for us to get on."

Each move brings another tied cottage. Helen takes a pride in her home and that is not easy given some of the places she has had to contend with. "One place we were offered didnt even have a kitchen sink. Another we lived in had so much condensation it even made our bedding wet. We found out it had been condemned by the council because it was built over a pit. When we complained and asked for something to be done we were out.

"Employers think you will put up with anything. When you take a job you have to ask for any improvements to the house to be done in the first week or they never get done."

Andrew thinks there should be some way of checking prospective employers after a terrible experience the family had in the south of England, where they had no way of knowing that the farmer had put seven other families through hell in a matter of months.

"We moved hundreds of miles for the job. Andrew was to be herd manager with the promise of becoming farm manager. When he gave the farmer his P45 the man said, what do I want that for? You are self-employed. There was nowhere else to work. I shall never get over taking the children to their new school and saying dont get settled because you wont be staying.

"Because we went through channels and insisted on being employees he withdrew our transport – the farm was several miles from the house. He gave my husband more and more hours; he went into our house while we were out; he threatened to burn down the house with us in it. He drove my husband to a nervous breakdown and then would sit opposite the house watching us while Andrew was off sick. The doctor said she had see it all before, it had happened to the last man who worked there.

"Some of the things this farmer did you wouldnt believe and we cant bring ourselves to talk about them. All the time our children had to cope with this situation and we found out from the DHSS that seven other families had suffered at the hands of this man. Finally we heard of an empty cottage we could move to – it took six months from going to that job to being safe again.

"The awful thing is that it has probably happened to other families since then. We had to provide three references for that job but had no way of knowing what we were letting ourselves in for.

Determined not to fall into the tied cottage/bad employer trap again the couple worked all hours to earn enough to qualify for a mortgage and finally got a bargain bungalow.

"People say to Andrews present boss that he must be paying him too much if we can afford to live here – they forget I have been working 60 hours a week to help pay the mortgage,"

says Helen.

But recently she was injured by a lorry which ploughed into their car, and has had to give up her job. Now the couple fear they will lose the home they have waited so long for.

"The only way we are hanging on is for Andrew to work day and night. We cant see a way forward and think he will come out of farming but is it too late to do something else at 40?

"Ideally he needs a job which uses his breeding and nutrition expertise and pays enough for us to cover the mortgage. It is so frustrating to have all this experience and knowledge and to find it worth so little. As Andrew says, he is not a greedy man, he just wants to work hard in a job he is happy in and see it reflected in wages that will provide for his family.

"Surely that is not too much to ask?" says Helen.