Dani Garavelli: Poetic round of applause leaves behind a bitter taste

Remember those days – a few weeks/a lifetime ago – when Brexit was all we talked about. Deadlines and trade deals and a points-based immigration system which the government assured us would be the foundation of a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy.
It emerged that picking fruit was more of a skill than the Tory government had suggested. Picture: GettyIt emerged that picking fruit was more of a skill than the Tory government had suggested. Picture: Getty
It emerged that picking fruit was more of a skill than the Tory government had suggested. Picture: Getty

The points-based immigration system is still visible on government websites, like an ode to pre-coronavirus folly.

“For too long, distorted by European free movement, the immigration system has been failing to meet the needs of the British people,” it reads. “We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation.”

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Tell that to the 150 Romanian workers recently disgorged on to the tarmac at Stansted Airport from a special charter plane; these fruit and vegetable pickers, so frequently derided, are now being praised as part of the “Land Army” that will save our crops from rotting in the field.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs put out an appeal to create a home-grown Land Army, but it appears some indigenous workers are less willing or able to live away from home or undertake such back-breaking toil.

Though 32,000 Britons signed up for the scheme, only 4,000 made themselves available for interview, and only 500 have been employed. Even if enough were willing, the farms could not rely on a purely homegrown workforce because new starts would need to be trained up. Apparently picking fruit requires skill after all.

Nor was our pre-coronavirus bigotry confined to EU citizens; the people featured in that disgusting Nigel Farage Breaking Point poster weren’t from Poland or the former Baltic states – they were from across the world: the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, the Far East. All countries without whose citizens our NHS and our care homes could not function at this or any other time.

This has been a week where the value of foreign labour has finally been acknowledged by those who once scorned it. Where in 2019, the Daily Mail might have described the Romanians as a “swarm” or “an invasion”, its headline on Thursday was “Romanians to the Rescue”. Xenophobe-in-chief Boris Johnson singled out two foreign nurses – one from New Zealand and one from Portugal – for staying by his bedside for 48 hours when his condition was touch and go.

More starkly, at least 10 of the NHS doctors who have died from Covid-19, have been immigrants, from Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria and Sudan. Nurses too, including Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong from Ghana, whose baby was safely delivered before she passed away last week. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the doctors “came to this country to make a difference and they did. They made the ultimate sacrifice”. You don’t have to be the shrewdest of observers to perceive the change in tone from the usual descriptors used, or to note that asylum seekers from many of those countries – plenty of them potential key workers – are currently sitting idle in bedsits, subsisting on £37.75 a week.

Now, suddenly, immigrants are contributors, not freeloaders; and whatever their experiences of racism in life, they are, at least, to be lauded in death.

Justifiably, there have been attempts to capitalise on this shift in narrative; it would be a terrible thing, after all, if this belated recognition was to have no enduring impact. Or if the only legacy that was to emanate from the sacrifices made by both immigrant and indigenous medical workers was a collective St George’s Cross.

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This was, doubtless, the imperative that drove the You Clap For Me Now poem which went viral last week. It exhorted us not to forget our newfound respect for immigrants when we can no longer hear the birds singing.

There were aspects of the video that were problematic; first of all it separated the contribution of migrant health workers from that of others when surely the point is they are one and the same. And, by placing an emphasis on those on the frontline – it risked feeding into the good migrant/bad migrant rhetoric rather than communicating the humanity of all. Still, it made its point: a country’s attitude towards “immigrants” shouldn’t be judged on how it treats them when they are risking their lives for us.

Our track record on this isn’t good. Those citizens who sailed from the West Indies on the Windrush had reason to believe both their war service and the contribution they were making to rebuilding Britain would be recognised by their new compatriots. Yet they experienced discrimination in jobs, housing and education regardless.

Then, 60 years on – when you would have expected their status to be unassailable – they faced the ignominy of having their citizenship challenged; many were detained, denied healthcare and – in some cases – deported to the country they left as children. So. Sacrifices are not always remembered. Lessons are not always learned. And gratitude for services rendered is not guaranteed.

Even now, at the height of our desperation, the fate of the fruit pickers is less than ideal . The reason the Romanian government has allowed them to go – in defiance of its travel restrictions – is that it has no means to support these men and women who would normally be working but have now become a burden on the state. And the only reason the food giant G’s Fresh has paid for the plane – travel expenses are usually borne by the workers – is because, without them, it stands to lose a large proportion of its produce.

How their health, or the health of others, will be protected while they are here is not clear. It seems unlikely they will have access to Covid-19 tests; and there has been nothing to suggest they will be paid a pandemic premium. When you look at the footage of some of the poorest people on the continent, about to be shipped out to work long, hard days, they come across as eminently exploitable. Or, to put it another way: as an entity, they may be acknowledged as vital, but as individuals remain disposable.

The suspicion – that migrants are bent on stealing what is rightfully ours – may have disappeared from the headlines, but it remains, below the surface and below the line, in snippy comments about the extra pressure they may put on the NHS and in the backlash from those who framed the You Clap For Me Now as virtue signalling or identity politics.

If these tensions continue to exist when people are putting their lives on the line, how much greater might they become when lockdown is over and we start trying to salvage the wrecked economy?

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We know insecurity breeds suspicion; and suspicion breeds racism. The test of a society is not how it treats migrants when it depends on them for survival, but how it treats them when their contribution is not so obviously a matter of life and death. Let’s hope, this time round, the sentiment is more than skin-deep and we continue to clap when the panic has subsided.

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