The Keelings Controversy: what would fair supply chains look like.

The story that one of Ireland’s largest fruit growers, Keelings, flew in almost 200 workers from bulgaria despite the Covid 19 lockdown has caused many people to ask why is it that Irish, and indeed European horticulture is so dependent on low paid exploited labour. This is not a new phenomenon, the abuses in Italian and Spanish horticulture two of Europe’s major producers has been well documented but little has been done to address the problem at either a national or European level.

The commentary in Ireland has been divided, while many are questioning why are we expecting migrant workers to risk their health to pick fruit for low wages Some people in Ireland have tried to dismiss these concerns by making a ridiculous claim that Irish people won’t do the job and that condescendingly we need immigrants to do jobs we won’t (implying that what’s not good enough for us is good enough for them). Ignoring that these jobs are known to be underpaid and with poor working conditions which make locals, both Irish and immigrants unwilling to apply.

A more honest justification is that the profitability of growers is dependent on keeping wages as low as possible and flying in migrants who are willing to accept poverty pay is the best way to do this. Obviously it goes without saying all immigrants are welcome in Ireland but we should not accept any supply chain that is reliant on low pay. Instead with the lock down requiring travel restrictions and Western Europe facing lost harvests if this cheap seasonal labour isn’t available, anyone interested in the sustainability of food production needs to ask what can be done to change the system.

Unite the Union have highlightedthe issues facing workers in Keelings, and indeed other horticultural workers, such as a lack of adequate pay and substandard accommodation, unfortunately the status quo is supported by large growers and the government, creating a situation which is bad for workers, smaller producers, and our food security.

One initiative which after years of work by various groups interested in food security  is finally making progress on the European agenda is the Farm to Fork initiative that is going through the European parliament. This would increase organic production, reduce pesticide use, and support other aspects of sustainable farming such as agroforestry. However it is facing stiff opposition from the agribusiness lobby who want to defend the status quo, and will almost definitely ensure a less than ambitious proposal

urban coop
The Urban Co-op in Limerick is one example of a community focused sustainable food initiative

More immediate changes is needed as the EU will not break with the status quo anytime soon, this can be provided by local initiatives to support locally grown produce with short sustainable supply chains, a number of these exist in Ireland including Community Supported Agriculture, veg box schemes, and food cooperatives

The crisis has shown the importance of sustainable local production, while these initiatives have shown what can be done, support at a national level is needed for these to grow and for new sustainable food production projects to be successful. There has been little to no political support for these projects in Ireland to date, however food sustainability has been put on the agenda and will only become more pressing as climate change impacts the existing global supply chains.

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