Exploring migrants’ knowledge and skill in seasonal farm work: more than labouring bodies
Migrant farmworkers dominate the horticultural workforce in many parts of the Minority (developed) World. The ‘manual’ work that they do—picking and packing fruits and vegetables, and pruning vines and trees—is widely designated unskilled. In policy, media, academic, activist and everyday discourses, hired farm work is framed as something anybody can do. We interrogate this notion with empirical evidence from the Sunraysia horticultural region of Australia. The region’s grape and almond farms depend heavily on migrant workers. By-and-large, the farmers and farmworkers we spoke to pushed back against the unskilled tag. They asserted that farmworkers acquire knowledge and skills over time and that experienced farmworkers are valuable—their value being brought into sharp relief against accounts of inexperienced farmworkers’ errors. Our interviewees provided rich insights into farmworkers’ engagements with crops and the intricacies of picking and pruning well. Far from being bereft of knowledge and skills, they recognised that experienced farmworkers bring benefits. They improve productivity, product quality and ultimately profits. This is especially so when open communication channels exist across the farm hierarchy, when experienced farmworkers’ insights are taken seriously by their employers. Our research is informed by organisational studies literature and scholarship on craft/making. Like factory floor workers and artisans, experienced farmworkers bring accumulated knowledge and skills to their work, gained through repeat performance. They reflect on and adjust their activities in dialogue with their materials and the environment. Experienced farmworkers demonstrate care, dexterity and judgement. They are not unskilled, and they are more than labouring bodies.