Thursday, June 22, 2006

Migrants, Supermarkets and our comfortable lifestyle 

An interesting defence of supermarkets in Stephen Tall’s blog, taking up a David Cameron theme. As Stephen says:

Supermarkets exist, and are popular, because they are good at giving people what they want. Simply to diss them… is to miss the point, or deliberately to avoid it. They are a creation of society’s aspirations to have a choice of quality foodstuffs available at reasonable cost whenever we need them.

Stephen makes a strong and decent point here. And of course ‘cheap food’ was an essential part of the old Liberal Free Trade Policy, so this is not unfamiliar ground.

One question I have to ask though is – in meeting this “aspiration for quality foodstuffs ..whenever we need them” do Supermarkets actually meet all the costs involved in their profit chain or do they pass on some to other people, as I suggested earlier that they might? Do the supermarkets just-in-time purchasing policies load up costs on to suppliers which in turn means that suppliers have to use extortionate labour policies to meet their costs? For example, by exploiting migrant workers.

The Guardian (5 June 2006) reports on conditions in a strawberry field near Leominster where both local residents and migrant workers are angry about conditions

When Val Salisbury walked down her Herefordshire lane and into a giant plastic polytunnel where dozens of Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other east Europeans were picking strawberries, the workers were surprised. She was, after all, a 69-year-old Englishwoman using a walking frame. But when she started pulling up the plants all around her and throwing them to the ground, they understood why she was there.
Their reaction surprised Mrs Salisbury. According to people who witnessed her act of defiance against S&A Davies, Europe's largest strawberry grower, the east Europeans started clapping. As more and more plants went flying, they cheered her on.

Details of the contract conditions help suggest why:

The documents suggest a strict regime. Pickers can be sacked for eating a single strawberry, for stopping work, going to the toilet in a hedge, or for smoking indoors. If rooms are not "clean and tidy", they can be asked to leave. If they want to invite a visitor to the camp, they must ask permission two days in advance.
When organising a profit centre in a market economy, passing on costs to others instead of paying for them yourself is one way to ensure your own bottom line is in the black. Enthusiasts for markets need to keep this simple truth in mind and work to make sure that market pressures act to prevent this ‘pass the parcel’ on costs. Otherwise we leave the moral field open for simplistic ‘socialist’ central controls.

For my part I think it is completely hypocritical for anyone on the one hand to call for strict immigration policies and get into hissy fits about migrant workers, and on the other hand turn a blind eye to the way our own lifestyle demands create the market for migrant and other low level insecure work. I will take Cameron seriously on his lifestyle celebration when he confronts his party with this truth.

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