This Is Not New — It’s The Attitude of the British Empire

The British attitude to immigration remains steeped in hypocrisy and classism

Sarah Myles
8 min readApr 19, 2020


From the U.K’s Daily Mail

With Coronavirus wreaking havoc across the globe, and causing severe economic strife to countless countries, news that the United Kingdom (along with Germany) has begun chartering flights to bring seasonal workers in from other countries has prompted some breathless speculation across social media.

The idea that certain tabloids — which have historically demonised migrant workers and called for the implementation of draconian immigration policies; routinely working to inflate the kind of bigoted rhetoric that helped prominent Brexiteers to the small margin of victory that determined Brexit — might suddenly be experiencing a shift in attitude as a result of this pandemic crisis is short-sighted, however. A simple glance through history shows us that this attitude is not new — it is at the heart of everything the British Empire once was.

In truth, it’s quite clear. The act of gathering workers from smaller economies and depositing them in the industries of larger economies, to perform tasks that are very low paid, temporary, and relatively insecure is something that the largest economies of today’s world are built upon — most notably, the United Kingdom and the United States. Indeed, plundering the work forces and resources of smaller nations has long been the modus operandi of large, wealthy, predominantly white countries — specifically when it comes to staffing the jobs that more privileged people do not want to do. Capitalism is always the driving force behind it.

From 1600 to 1708, it was the East India Company that was instrumental in the establishment and exponential growth of the British Empire, being an English corporation that boasted a royal charter, tasked with exploiting trade with India and the East and South East regions of Asia. Having battled with the Dutch and the Portuguese for dominance, the company then branched out into the slave trade — employing slave labour for its own purposes, as well as transporting enslaved people to various island facilities, including St Helena. Similarly, British trading companies such as the Royal African Company and Grant, Oswald & Company used Bunce Island as an important staging post within the ‘Triangular Trade’ route of commercial goods and enslaved African people, between Europe, Africa, and America.

What is happening today is not the slave trade — though modern day slavery remains a significant risk for migrant workers. Instead, largely, it is the modern manifestation of that same imperial attitude: the people of Britain, for the most part, don’t want to have to harvest their own food, so let’s bring in workers from less wealthy countries, pay them poorly, treat them with bigotry, and expect them to be grateful for the opportunity.

The hypocrisy on display here is the same hypocrisy we see within the Windrush Scandal, as up to 83 people were wrongly deported, detained, or denied the benefits of their citizenship in 2018. They had arrived in the United Kingdom between 1948 and 1970, from British colonies, to help re-build the workforce in the aftermath of World War Two. It’s also the same hypocrisy we see within social regard of the newly coined category of ‘Key Worker,’ where it now falls to the lowest paid workers to put their lives on the line to keep the country moving during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

Just months ago, when newly installed Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his first cabinet appointments and policy agenda, it was announced to Britain that stricter immigration systems would be implemented as part of the move toward Brexit. A points-based system will categorise workers as either ‘skilled’ or ‘unskilled,’ with the ‘skilled’ contingent being prioritised for entry. From the U.K government’s own policy paper, The UK’s points-based immigration system: policy statement, published on 19th February 2020:

“We are ending free movement and will introduce an Immigration Bill to bring in a firm and fair points-based system that will attract the high-skilled workers we need to contribute to our economy, our communities and our public services. We intend to create a high wage, high skill, high productivity economy.”

So, what does that mean for agricultural labour, and the need to harvest food on a seasonal basis, given that the U.K has long relied on migrant workers to do that job? What does it mean for the migrant cleaners of hospitals and schools? What does it mean for the migrant delivery drivers, warehouse, and supermarket workers? What does it mean for migrant care home staff? What does it mean for all those categories of employment that Home Secretary Priti Patel recently referred to as ‘unskilled,’ the salaries of which fall below the new ‘skilled job’ threshold of £25,600? Indeed, what does it mean for all those very low paying roles in British society, which tend to be filled by migrant workers, and which are now being termed ‘Key Workers’ since a global pandemic has everyone else sheltering in place in their homes?

“As part of the significant changes we are making to the operation of the border and immigration system, we are delivering on our manifesto commitment to reduce overall migration numbers. We will therefore end free movement and not implement a route for lower-skilled workers.

“UK businesses will need to adapt and adjust to the end of free movement, and we will not seek to recreate the outcomes from free movement within the points-based system. As such, it is important that employers move away from a reliance on the UK’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity, and wider investment in technology and automation.”


“We have committed to expanding the pilot scheme for seasonal workers in agriculture which will be quadrupled in size to 10,000 places. The UK also enjoys youth mobility arrangements with eight countries and territories which results in around 20,000 young people coming to the UK each year. Both routes will provide employers with further ongoing flexibility in employing individuals into lower-skilled roles.”

So, to sum up, from January 2021, one of the only routes open to ‘low skilled’ individuals wishing to work in the United Kingdom will be in harvesting our food. Every sector is required to “adjust” and “adapt” — investing in staff and technology to provide better working situations for British citizens and skilled workers from overseas — except for agriculture, because there is apparently no realistic expectation that those jobs will be filled by British citizens. This immigration plan hasn’t changed — even in the face of the stark lessons being handed out by the Coronavirus crisis.

Al Jazeera reports on the same situation highlighted by the Daily Mail in the screenshot at the top of this article — that Eastern Europeans are being “flown in for ‘vital’ jobs on UK” and German farms — specifically, that “charter flights bring Eastern European workers to the UK and Germany after farms fail to recruit enough local workers. Thankfully, the new immigration policy has not yet been implemented. This labour shortage has been caused by Coronavirus-related travel bans that have been in force since the middle of March this year.

The lesson being delivered here is that, in terms of British agriculture, this is a dress rehearsal for the 2021 harvesting season. According to the Al Jazeera report, Labour experts estimate “farms in the UK need 90,000 people to fill roles usually carried out by seasonal migrant workers. Thousands of people are particularly needed in the next few weeks as the harvesting season for most farms and crops begins in May.”

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

In light of this estimation, the government’s plan to offer 10,000 agricultural places to “low skilled” workers, and 20,000 young people in 2021 seems woefully inadequate — not least because the 2019 harvest season proved that seasonal hiring had been made more difficult for U.K farmers because of Brexit, before Brexit even happened. The Financial Times noted, in 2017, that “the U.K has become less attractive to seasonal workers…because of the fall in the value of sterling against the Euro since Britain voted to leave the EU.” The problem with consequently booking non-EU workers, however, is that visa paperwork is time-consuming, and delays mean food rots in fields. Post-Brexit, with freedom of movement between the U.K and the European Union ended, this will be the case for workers from European countries, too.

So now, during this 2020 pandemic crisis, where are all those British voters, for whom stricter immigration was a top priority? Where are all those British voters who felt that freedom of movement and large numbers of seasonal migrant workers coming to the United Kingdom from overseas had a detrimental impact on the employment prospects of British citizens? Where are all those British citizens who are so quick to invoke the spectre of ‘Blitz Spirit’ and other war-time, everybody-helping-the-national-effort catchphrases? Where are all those people who used their votes to contribute to the less welcoming atmosphere of the U.K, and the fall in value of the pound against the Euro? Well, wherever they are, precious few of them seem to be taking jobs on British farms, working to feed the nation.

Three organisations have joined forces to create a Feed The Nation recruitment campaign but, despite an initial frenzy of interest, the charity Concordia cites a very low uptake, with only 16% of 36,000 applicants choosing to progress to an online interview, and only 112 of 900 people actually accepting offers of work through their part of the scheme. The most telling part of those statistics is the fact that half of the initial 36,000 expressions of interest cited a loss of employment due to the pandemic as reason for their enquiry.

The hypocrisy is almost too thick to wade through — this bigoted national attitude of treating ‘foreigners’ as something ‘other,’ unless they have something to offer in the way of resources or labour. It is classism of the highest order — perpetuating an economic system that traps those in certain categories of jobs in extremely low wage situations, and then treating them with disdain for it; migrant workers and British workers alike, just as it always was in the days of the British Empire, and just as it always is in capitalism. There is no attitude change here.



Sarah Myles

Freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. Credits include Film International, Twisted Sister Lit Mag, Channillo, and Flickering Myth.