You can tell there’s an election in the air when party leaders of all persuasions start to dust off their own particular brand of xenophobia in an attempt to pander to the less attractive neuroses of middle England.
David Cameron’s pledge to reduce net migration to the UK to “acceptable levels” may strike a chord with the readership of the Daily Mail, but like so many blatant electioneering policies, it is largely unworkable, naïve and ultimately counterproductive.
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Immigration is a hallmark of a successful, stable society and attempting to impose arbitrary quotas on it is unlikely to yield many long-term benefits. One could argue that it is something that we should be celebrating as it has certainly contributed hugely to Britain’s social and economic development over the centuries
Across the pond, potential Republican party candidates for next year’s US presidential election are even more strident in their undertaking to “protect” America’s borders and American jobs from the “threat” of immigration, ironic when so much of America’s economy runs on immigrant labour.
When I travelled across the US for my Nuffield scholarship study in 2008, looking at the key drivers of successful large-scale dairy farming businesses, this was one area that I was particularly interested in learning about as finding reliable sources of labour on dairy farms is a perennial and growing challenge in an increasingly urbanised society.
As I expected, most of the labour on the larger dairy farms in the US is Hispanic, but what was surprising was that this was by no means stereotypical “cheap” labour.
Every member of staff I met on the dairies I visited in the US seemed to be well-motivated, well-trained and highly skilled.
It was a far cry from the image of benighted immigrants, paid less than the minimum wage to work in sweatshop conditions that I feared I might uncover.
One very large and now quite well-known dairy farming business in Indiana, that employs more than 400 largely Hispanic staff to look after its 32,000 cows, estimated the cost of employing staff at between $50,000 and $60,000 a person a year, once wages, benefits, training and accommodation had been factored in; and this situation certainly wasn’t unique.
As a result they had a stable, reliable and productive workforce that was well-rewarded, with low levels of staff turnover and a genuine sense of identity and community.
“The vacuum that this paucity of native talent has created has been largely filled by hard-working eastern European immigrants who have grasped these opportunities with both hands and are now a fundamental and valued part of both our industry and our rural communities.”
So why, therefore, were more Americans not employed on American dairies, when the working conditions are actually far better than many lower paid urban jobs? And by the same token why is that same situation increasingly reflected over here?
The answer in both cases is pretty much the same. It is essentially a problem of perception and a failure on our part to effectively sell agriculture as a vibrant and exciting industry and to communicate the opportunities that exist within it to young people.
As a result, agriculture has for too long been seen in UK schools as a career of last resort with little structure and opportunity for progression. Consequently, it attracts disappointingly little interest from British school-leavers.
The vacuum that this paucity of native talent has created has been largely filled by hard-working eastern European immigrants who have grasped these opportunities with both hands and are now a fundamental and valued part of both our industry and our rural communities.
This latest chapter in the evolution of British society is something we should celebrate and that our politicians might like to reflect on as they seek re-election.
David Alvis is managing director of Yorkshire Dairy Goats, based in the East Riding. He is a Nuffield Scholar and formerly co-managed the Technology Strategy Board’s sustainable agriculture and food innovation platform.