As Ireland enters into the second month of its quarantine outrage has emerged at the importation of Bulgarian labour by the Ballyboughal-registered fruit company Keelings.
Announced over the past 24 hours, it has been revealed that the company had chartered a Sofia-bound flight to import 180 ‘seasonal workers’ to tend its North Dublin and Louth operations.
The footage showing the arrival of the imported labourers has been doing the rounds among the collective WhatsApp groups of a housebound Irish population, with the company attempting some damage control with a manicured press statement.
As if to point out a trend, in 2018 it was revealed that chief executive of the company David Keeling was involved in lobbying efforts to liberalise visa restrictions to non-EEA countries with Minister for Enterprise Heather Humphries.
Since the 1990s large swathes of the Irish agri-food industry has been reliant on mainly Eastern European labour injections, as margins tighten and demand for low-cost fresh food increases.
One would imagine that the aspirations for many in the industry would be to open up labour pools from Africa and South America to keep their business model viable. Their concerns are naturally with their daily operations, and any wider societal changes are secondary.
In defending their actions the company has stated that foreign labour is required if fresh fruit is to reach shelves in time, and that attempts will be made to elicit local labour. In that they may be nominally correct, their business model is famously time-dependent and subservient to a 24/7 consumer economy that demands cheap goods at will.
Field work is as dispiriting as it is underpaid and backbreaking. Defenders of Keelings actions point to the fact that the Irish have been vacating the profession as living standards rose. Who wants to break their backs picking strawberries in Ashbourne when they could opt for an office job in Dublin?
These however are not normal times, as the global economy is grinding to a halt amid an unprecedented pandemic. The old neoliberal equations of constant growth and rapacious need to import labour do not make sense anymore.
While Bulgaria maintains a lower rate of infection, the point remains that movement of people must be curtailed for the foreseeable future. For all the global aspirations of our ruling elite, Ireland must temporarily become a semi-closed system, therein laying certain contradictions ahead.
In a 2019 study from UCC an ominous note was struck regarding the potential automation of large aspects of the agri-food business in Ireland. A large percentage of jobs that immigrants are imported for today won’t be around in twenty years.
We see in France with deindustrialisation the societal damage done by transplanting a third-world labour force to a country and abandoning it just as industries evaporate. Ireland and the Whig narratives abounding our media waxes lyrically about economic growth and diversity scarcely apprehending the demographic nightmare around the corner.
Anyone who has meandered their way through the low wage economy understands the cynical use of foreign labour in Ireland today. In economic terms Ireland is a decadent and over-privileged economic ecosystem that needs to profit off cheap transient labour.
Pursuing employee reviews of Keelings we see a general pattern of arduous low wage work, where foreign labour is preferred due to willingness to put up with it.
Speaking in an interview with the Irish Times executive Caroline Keeling summarised the global and diversified aspects of their business model:
“Basically, what we would do is buy apples in New Zealand and ship them to China. Egypt was a classic example this winter. We bought a lot of strawberries in Egypt and shipped them to Hong Kong and some to Ireland”
While perhaps summarising all the dynamism capitalism is famous for, the above also highlights its shortcomings. Whether through constraints of resources or economics the Keelings business model is not feasible in an era that food supplies will have to be localised rather than globalised.
Where free movement of goods dominates, the inevitable free movement of labour almost always follows, manifested in the phenomenon of mass migration.
To think the market mechanism operates optimally for society is a bourgeois myth evaporating in light of recent events. It only operates optimally for those who make the profit.
The actions of Keelings are potentially a microcosm for the next twenty years of this state. To keep the wheels attached to our neoliberal economy, business elites have ordained the requirement to import a million warm bodies over the next twenty years.
The footage of seasonal labourers being shipped to pick strawberries even amid a health crisis and mass unemployment points to the absurdities facing us.
For decades mass immigration has been the dirty secret of the globalisation model. While Western societies in the post-Berlin Wall era boasted solid economic performances and increased female participation in the labour force, this was all propelled by essentially slave-wage labour from abroad. Whether that be from outsourcing abroad or insourcing at home through the introduction of permanent ‘guest workers’.
With globalisation and lust for profit, the financial gap between the first and third world is rapidly diminishing, destabilising the prior economic order.
The Keelings fiasco is a warning sign for us all to reform now and implement prudent immigration controls and incentivise automation over immigration.
Be ready to accept radical economic restructuring should you wish to avoid the maladies of mass immigration.
Even as Corbyn and Sanders flounder, the Left is responding to the crisis with radicalism not seen since the 1960s, all the while being deluded about the effects of mass immigration on the working class. The Right must counter by embracing populist paternalism over ‘free-market’ dogma and have a responsible and mature nativism to boot.
A globalised economy is a cynical place, one where society’s well-being can be made secondary to discount strawberries.