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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

Migrants: UK, Brazil

The National Farmers' Union complained in February 2009 that there was a shortage of at least 5,000 farm workers despite rising unemployment and British worker protests about the employment in the UK of workers from Italy and Portugal. According to the NFU, over 60 percent of farmers responding to a survey on labor shortages in 2008 said they lost income because some of their crops could not be picked for lack of labor.

In response, the government increased the number of entries allowed under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) from 16,500 in 2008 to 21,250 in 2009, with the SAWS scheduled to end in 2010. ( Since January 1, 2008, only Bulgarians and Romanians can be SAWS, but SAWS no longer have to be full-time students at home. They arrive in the UK via one of nine "operators" or recruiters for up to six months, and for most the minimum wage is L5.74 an hour.

At its peak in 2004, some 25,000 foreign workers were admitted under the SAWS. After the accession of the so-called A8 central European countries to the EU in 2004, the SAWS quota was reduced to 16,250 in 2005.

Brazil. Brazil has a quarter of the world's farm land and an eighth of the world's water. Brazil is the largest exporter of soybeans, sugar, coffee, orange juice and tobacco, as well as beef (producing a quarter of the world's beef) and broilers.

In response to high oil prices in the 1970s, the Brazilian government subsidized the creation of a biofuels industry centered on turning sugar cane into ethanol. Brazil is the leading exporter of ethanol, and complaints from some of those buying ethanol are speeding the mechanization of the cane harvest.

Cane is grown on six million hectares (15 million acres), mostly in the southeast and northeast; an estimated 70 percent of the 350,000 cane harvesters in Sao Paulo are migrants from the poorer northeast. The workers are often hired in crews and paid on the basis of how much cane they cut. Since only the mills can measure the weight of the cane that is cut, migrants are sometimes cheated.

Sugar cane must be milled soon after it is harvested. Mills used to hire cane cutters directly and house them near family-owned mills. However, the Brazilian cane industry is consolidating, with more cane grown by independent growers for larger mills owned by multinationals. The growers hire workers as needed, and more of the migrants are living in towns in cane-growing areas.

Rising incomes and concerns about Brazilian ethanol being produced with "slave labor" has spurred mechanization, especially in the southeast. Most projections are that cane harvesting in southeastern Brazil will be largely mechanized by 2010.

Gretchen Gordon, "Migration and Mechanization in Brazil's Biofuel Cane Fields," Americas, February 9, 2009.

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