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A new research project to study seasonal agricultural migrant work during the COVID-19 pandemic has been launched today by COMPAS and the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds.

The UK food and agriculture sector relies on seasonal migrant workers to plant, harvest and pack crops. Over 90% of seasonal workers in the UK are EU nationals. The COVID-19 pandemic has put huge strains on recruitment and protection of seasonal workers, yet they remain essential to ensure food security throughout the UK during the pandemic.

The new research project Feeding the Nation: seasonal migrant workers and food security during the COVID-19 pandemic launched at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19. It will examine the experiences of seasonal agricultural migrant workers throughout harvest seasons 2020 and 2021.

Dr. Roxana Barbulescu of the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds (PI) and Dr. Carlos Vargas-Silva of COMPAS (Co-I) will lead the study.

“We are very keen to document the experiences of seasonal workers and farmers, the often forgotten ‘key workers’ in this crisis” said Dr. Barbulescu.

“Apart from hearing their experiences, we believe our findings will help inform decisions on the post-Brexit immigration system in light of possible future pandemics, and inform debates on the contributions of low skilled migrants as key workers.”

Dr. Vargas-Silva added:

“This is timely study has a number of objectives. We want to discover, as it happens in real time, how worker recruitment takes place in order to mitigate risks for the UK food supply.

Importantly, we also want to provide information to limit contagion on farms. Conceptually we also hope the study will contribute to theories about the high demand for migrant labour in periods of high unemployment.”

The research team will work with the charitable organisation, New Europeans, to develop information and guidance materials for seasonal migrants, and with The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to ensure that the project informs policymaking. The results of the study will be presented to the wider UK public through a virtual exhibition and media outlets.

Commenting on the announcement, Roger Casale, Director of New Europeans UK said:

“This is a valuable opportunity to learn more about the UK labour market and its dependence on this group of key migrant workers from Europe.

We are delighted to play a role by supporting outreach to migrant workers during the study and helping to disseminate the research findings.”

More details about the study