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Opinions vary on UK farm labour scheme

by Barbados Today
5 min read

A recent overseas farm labour programme described as “modern day slavery” by some participants is being defended by others who stayed the duration of the course and in some cases are eager to return next year.

Almost two dozen Barbadian workers in a Barbados TODAY virtual interview admitted that harsh temperatures in the United Kingdom, cultural differences and “misunderstandings” with some of their superiors were characteristic of the experience.

However, at a time of mass unemployment here, they said the work provided more than 100 Barbadians with much-needed income to sustain themselves and cover financial obligations back home.

About a month ago, claims of slave-like conditions from participants and relatives in the programme were reported in another section of the press. The developments prompted an investigation from the local Ministry of Labour who facilitated the programme in collaboration with the British High Commission.

There were complaints about the quality of bunk bedded living quarters, bathrooms with faeces “all over the floor” and extended hours in muddy water, picking strawberries.

Chad Blenman, a spokesman for some of the workers, however, painted a vastly different picture, contending that programme coordinators were transparent about the terms and conditions of employment.

Blennman explained that the first three months were spent in the pack house of Cobrey Farm in Coughton, England grading and packing asparagus in high-quality indoor facilities. However, at the end of the asparagus season, they opted to transfer to the Hugh Lowe Farm in Maidstone, where the conditions were less glamorous and the work was outdoors.

Another woman, who identified herself as Ms. Grant said the biggest shock was the cold temperatures. She admitted that at times the Eastern Europeans with whom they worked were not entirely favourable to the Afro Caribbean crowd, but that issues were ironed out at the level of farm management or with Managing Director of CJNM Associates Christopher Griffith, a Barbadian who facilitated the trip.

“Sometimes it was the first time they were seeing a black person up close and they said that to us. Some were nice, but others wouldn’t speak to you at all and that was fine. We didn’t go there to make friends, we went to make money,” Ms Grant told Barbados TODAY.

“We also knew that we weren’t coming there to be the CEO of the company. We went as farm hands. It was not a glamorous job, no one expected it to be,” she added.

Barbados TODAY understands that farm workers were guaranteed at least 40 hours a week, but would get as many as 60, which would fetch them somewhere in the region of £400.

They noted that almost all of the people who signed up were escaping unemployment in Barbados and the appeal of being paid in the British Pound Sterling was even more attractive.

Unfortunately, many had absolutely no training or experience in agriculture even in the tropical climate of the Caribbean.

“We went win or lose because nothing was happening in Barbados. A few of the people I know come out of the hotel industry, but there was no work and being unemployed for over a year and some, the odds weren’t looking good, so we jumped at the opportunity,” Grant added.

Another participant, Eastmond, a longtime hospitality worker in Barbados made the last minute decision to sign up for the trip after two years of unemployment. He admitted that he was very uncomfortable with the situation at first, but with time came to appreciate the rationale behind many of the rules and customs.

“One thing that I must mention is that in England, they are serious about productivity and every minute counts. So in Barbados we are accustomed to being very casual, very laid back and very cool, but in England, it is work work work,” said Eastmond.

“For us it is going to be a problem because we are not accustomed to that, but if you change your mindset and understand that there are targets to meet, you kind of understand why they behave the way that they behave,” he added.

The workers noted that at Hugh Lowe they sometimes worked in rain and hail and they were expected to pick a certain number of berries within a specified time period.

In one case, when they experienced a problem with their supervisor, the owner of the farm met with them, apologised and ordered the supervisor on duty to undergo further training for his position.

It was also at Hugh Lowe that accommodation, bathrooms and kitchen facilities were shared.

“People cleaned the bathrooms in the morning, a lady and a gentleman, but in most cases, it was the farm workers who were keeping the bathrooms dirty,” said another worker, Antoinette.

“But we are using the toilets and the kitchen and we are all adults, so even if someone is cleaning it, you shouldn’t leave it to someone else. If you had a spill, you really just needed to clean up behind yourself,” she added.

Another man who identified himself as ‘Roach’ said the programme was so good that he will be making arrangements to return next year.

Barbados TODAY reached out to the Minister of Labour, Colin Jordan for an update on the ongoing investigation, but up to the time of publication, no update had been provided.

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