This week the BBC did an experiment. They got five young British people to work on a farm for a day picking cabbages – although not mentioned, the wrappers they were putting the cabbages in, were heading for Tesco, ironically in a bag of a non-existent farm; (as I’ve mentioned before on the site, Tesco started packaging meat and veg in bags that said Woodside Farm and the likes, which may exist somewhere but in this case are an invention to make us feel their produce is more local).
Anyhow, these workers were doing a job previously undertaken by workers from other EU countries. You can guess what happens; they find the work really hard and although do the job required of them, say they wouldn’t do it for a living. The farmer says that he is struggling now to find workers; Polish and Lithuanian workers have gone home because of the exchange rate, and the Bulgarian and Romanian workers who remain, are too few to take up the slack. And all this, when the majority of farmers voted to leave.
What the experiment didn’t show, is the life migrant workers experience when they are not on the job. They often live in squalid overcrowded digs, at the mercy of landlords who take advantage of high rents without the requisite health, safety and standards of comfort any person deserves. The problem is now compounded by the insecurity many face in this farce of a transition to whatever a Brexit Britain will be. The right of centre thinktank, the Policy Exchange has suggested ‘that Britain needs to “wean itself off low-skilled migration” and suggests that lower-skilled EU nationals who do come to work in Britain should be given temporary two-year work permits, be fingerprinted and issued biometric ID cards, and denied access to housing benefit or tax credits’. What tossers! They are completely devoid of an understanding of how economically that is impossible; the minimum wage (introduced by New Labour) doesn’t cover living costs, hence the introduction of tax credits (also introduced by New Labour, who thought they could make society more equitable by not redistributing wealth), which are disallowed under these proposals.
Martin Hayes’ poem, ‘peace’ powerfully portrays the conditions of migrant workers in terms of working conditions. ‘the mechanics sought peace while stuck under those 140,000-mile vans/ trying to clean and replace oil filters and carburettors/ so that those vans could be rolled out of their workshop/ as good as new’. And then in their living conditions, ‘the mechanics/ who lived in rooms within rented flats filled with men who also sought peace/ sharing their lives with men who washed cars/ …. men who propped themselves up on their pillows at night seeking peace by drinking cans of cheap beer and eating kebabs/ Skyping their families far away in other/ countries.’ And without sounding too Monty Python about it, these men are relatively lucky, many female migrant workers find themselves enslaved by trafficking and are forced to be sex workers.
The UK had a work and wages problem before Brexit, and it was nothing to do with migrant workers. It was to do with an economy that is founded on debt, thus reliant on property prices (not just housing but business rates), a pensions bill that companies say they can’t afford to keep up with any longer, and successive governments too afraid to dent corporate profits in any way.
Martin Hayes was born in London in 1966 and has lived along the Edgware Road/Marylebone area all of his life. He has worked in the courier industry for over 30 years, first as a courier, but mostly in the office as a controller allocating out jobs to couriers and dealing with all of the problems and issues that the courier industry produces. His first collection of poems, When We Were Almost Like Men, was published by Smokestack in 2015. He has another collection with Smokestack coming out in July called Roar! and a book with Culture Matters called The Things Our Hands Once Stood For coming out next month.
the mechanics sought peace while stuck under those 140,000-mile vans
trying to clean and replace oil filters and carburettors
so that those vans could be rolled out of their workshop
as good as new
the mechanics sought peace while staring into the bikes that had been brought into their workshop
staring into their engines while their burnt and red fingers twisted back the revs
resting their ears as close to those engines as they could possibly get
just so they could hear and feel the illnesses of those bikes
inside their guts
as their fingers twisted away and turned at the caps on those engines
trying to heal them
who lived in rooms within rented flats filled with men who also sought peace
sharing their lives with men who washed cars
and moved the contents of offices into other offices for less than the cost of a burrito
men who propped themselves up on their pillows at night seeking peace
by drinking cans of cheap beer and eating kebabs
skyping their families far away in other
men who got up at 5 am every morning feeling rejuvenated
to march at the sun and swallow the universe
putting up scaffolding or delivering boxes
for men who weren’t anywhere near
the men that they were
the mechanics sought peace under those 140,000-mile vans
because they didn’t have a fig tree to sit under like Buddha did
the mechanics who tried to heal those dying bikes with their fingers and hearts
because they didn’t have a woman to hold at night
the mechanics who couldn’t afford anything more
other than to exist in their rooms within rented flats
filled with other men all seeking the same type of peace that eagles gliding
through the immense sky feel