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When Scotland’s Farmworkers Downed Tools

In 1923, Scottish agricultural workers went on strike over attempts to impose a longer working week — a century later, their struggle remains as relevant as ever.

Farm labourers at Hedderwick, near Dunbar, circa 1920s

In the summer of 2023, 88 seasonal fruit pickers employed by Haygrove Farms, largely hailing from Latin America, undertook unofficial strike action in response to alleged wage theft, discrimination, harassment, and poor working conditions. As a recent report by the Landworkers’ Alliance sets out, the post-Brexit seasonal worker visa scheme has facilitated a decline in seasonal rural workers’ conditions: many are subject to substandard housing, abusive work environments, and poverty pay levels, while the Home Office turns a blind eye and makes no use of its power to sanction employers.

Too often the labour movement is seen as purely urban, a product of industrialisation and the city growth that came with it, and the rural working class itself passive and deferential. The Haygrove workers’ strike action, however, took place alongside the centenary this year of another strike — the largest agricultural industrial action in Scotland’s history — that proves how wrong that impression is.

The aftermath of the First World War saw a wholesale upsurge in workers’ demands for reduced hours at no loss of pay. Britain was no exception, and the introduction of the Hours of Employment Bill, colloquially known as the 48 Hour Bill, was hotly anticipated. When it arrived, however, it excluded agricultural workers.

This injustice ignited the ire of the Scottish Farm Servants Union, or SFSU. Farm servants deserved parity with all other sectors who were to be included by the act, the union believed: they too had made sacrifices during the war and deserved an equal share of the social improvements the new peace promised. Writing in the Scottish Farm Servant journal in 1919, Joe Duncan, secretary of the SFSU, observed: ‘The new heaven is rather slow in delivery; the waiting list must be very long now. The old earth remains, and the farm servant is to be tied to it as long as ever.In the eyes of the SFSU, the government’s failure to recognise the contributions of farm servants was an act of sheer perfidiousness.

However, where attempts to secure state legislation may have failed, a reduction in working hours was achieved in many industries — including for cotton textile unions and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers — and it was to this mechanism that the SFSU turned. Negotiations between the SFSU and the National Farmers Union Scotland, which represented the employers of farm servants, led to a national conference on the hours of work in agriculture, held in Perth on 13 February 1919, with 14 NFUS and 24 SFSU representatives elected to take part.

The SFSU made a proposal for a fifty-hour week based on a nine-hour work day, with Saturday a half day. Following a counterproposal by the NFUS and some further discussions, the SFSU was successful in its demands. The resulting national collective agreement was known as the Perth Agreement. The Perth Agreement would, however, prove to be a rather temporary feature of Scottish agriculture — and as economic depression took hold in the early 1920s, its provisions came under increasing threat.

Industrial action in Scottish agriculture was something of a rarity, demonstrated by the incredulous tone exhibited in the Dundee Courier to a small-scale strike breaking out in Fife, which it declared an ‘unusual spectacle’. Proposed increases in hours, however, invoked a sharp response. In Ross in 1922, farmers’ demands to alter the terms of the Perth Agreement, which would have resulted in a six-hour increase to the working week, resulted in a complete breakdown in negotiations between the SFSU and NFUS. As the negotiation period approached, the farm servants of Ross refused to take up engagements unless the terms of the Perth Agreement were honoured. Despite an ensuing war of attrition and threats of eviction, the NFUS eventually relented, resulting in the Perth Agreement’s survival.

The strike action in East Lothian, where farmers proposed a three-hour extension to the working week, was significantly larger. Throughout the spring of 1923, farm servants refused to enter into the traditional annual negotiations with farmers. Throughout the region, roving picket lines equipped with bicycles were established to deter potential strike-breakers from taking up engagements with farmers. Farm servants also threatened to continue to occupy tied housing after the term time had come to end, effectively blocking incoming strike-breakers from working.

The campaign escalated, with full strike action occurring on 26 May 1923. A SFSU branch circular from 31 May illustrates the strike’s scale: 1,400 farm servants participating. Out of the 300 farms in East Lothian, only twelve were said to have had a full workforce that day.

The strike would eventually be claimed as a victory for the SFSU as they defeated the three-hour weekly increase and settled for an increase of twenty working hours annually.

The SFSU’s campaign for fairer working hours was just one part of a much wider campaign to better the working conditions of Scotland’s farm servants. In nearly all areas of life — from housing to leisure — the SFSU fought for the rights of the rural working class. The SFSU’s campaigns also extended to campaigns of solidarity: money was raised for striking agricultural workers in Norfolk and support extended to Irish migrant workers. Trade unionism and collective bargaining was crucial in agriculture then, and remains so today.

Since spring, the UVW trade union has come to the support of the Haygrove workers by launching tribunal action against Haygrove farms. The conditions against which those workers organised, however, go a long way beyond their own fields. Jamila Duncan-Bosu, a solicitor with the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, has concluded that the situation in 2023 for seasonal farm workers is tantamount to ‘state sponsored exploitation’.

Reflecting on the East Lothian Farm Servants’ strike from the modern day provides a timely reminder of the importance of collective bargaining and solidarity in agriculture. Through the SFSU, agricultural workers were able to not only win better conditions but to defend them, too. Today’s migrant workers are subject to conditions largely unchanged from the early twentieth century, but they too are fighting. We must offer our support and solidarity to the rural working class in order to end exploitation in agriculture — and everywhere.