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Feeding the Nation

Feeding the Nation: seasonal migrant workers and food security during the COVID-19 pandemic

Launched at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford in October 2020, this research project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.

Dr. Roxana Barbulescu of the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies (CERS), School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds (PI) and Dr. Carlos Vargas-Silva of the Centre on Migration Policy and Society at the University of Oxford (Co-I) are leading the study.

The UK food and agriculture sector relies on seasonal migrant workers to plant, harvest and pack crops. 94% of seasonal workers in the UK are EU nationals. The COVID-19 pandemic poses unprecedented challenges to the recruitment and protection of seasonal workers, yet they remain essential to ensure food security throughout the UK during the pandemic. This project examines the recruitment and experiences of seasonal agricultural migrant workers throughout harvest seasons 2020 and 2021, using 212 remote qualitative interviews and data analysis.

The project has 6 key objectives: (1) to provide information in real time on worker recruitment and retention in order to support evidence-based rapid interventions and mitigate risks for UK the food supply; (2) to provide information to limit contagion on farms; (3) to document the experiences of seasonal workers and farmers; (4) to inform decisions on the post-Brexit immigration system in light of possible future pandemics; (5) conceptually, to contribute to theories about the high demand for migrant labour in periods of high unemployment and (6) and to debates on the contributions of low skilled migrants as key workers.

The research team will work with the charity, New Europeans, to develop information and guidance materials for seasonal migrants, and with The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to ensure that the project informs policymaking. The results of the study will be presented to the wider UK public through a virtual exhibition and media outlets.



 In December 2021 the research team launched a set of informative mutlilingual and multimedia tailored for seasonal migrant workers in agriculture. The materials are aimed at addressing the needs of EUSS seasonal workers and Tier 5 Seasonal Visa holders and are available as a downloadable flyer and as thematic video produced in English, Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian. They include information on the rights of seasonal workers with the two statuses while in UK as well as a series of useful links and contacts including reporting and claim mechanisms for reporting National Minimum Wage violations or Modern Day Slavery. The  materials can be accessed here:

The materials have been co-produced in partnership with the charity New Europeans UK and the law firm Seraphus. The aim of these resources is to empower vulnerable temporary migrants and to increase standards in the farming sector.



The research team launched an online exhibition 'Migrant workers: the raspberry planter' hosted by the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL)

The exhibition brings together a series of illustrations in watercolour and ink by Sarah Hannis commissioned for the ESRC project Feeding the nation: seasonal migrant workers and food security ( The exhibition seeks to render visible the presence the lives and people who come every year to work in UK agriculture but who are otherwise invisible and transient community. The exhibition has been ensembled by the curator Dr Ollie Douglas.

In the blog Feeding the nation: the lives of seasonal migrant workers Dr Roxana Barbulescu and Dr Bethany Robertson wrote for the museum to  introduce the exhibition to the general public.



The research team launched their second online exhibition. It is entitled 'Migrant Workers: Summer on a Strawberry Farm'.

The previous exhibition showed the work of seasonal migrants in winter. As we progress to warmer months, this second exhibition examines the role of migrant workers during summer on a UK strawberry farm.

The story is based on interviews with workers and on photos they shared during the research.

Join us as we follow the journey of strawberries from harvest through to their arrival on supermarket shelves.


Accommodation offset for seasonal migrant workers in low pay funder Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Low pay Commission, Principle Investigator (12,000)

Migrant workers in agri-food: global perspectives and international best practices, PI, funder ESRC IAA (11,000)

Labour Shortages in Food Systems - Funder Food Standards Agency 2021-2022 -CO-I (48,000)


The third and last exhibition with the Museum of English Rural Life has just been launched. The exhibition is entitled Migrant workers: hidden rural mobilities

'Horticultural work is seasonal, but it is not temporary. Many migrant workers will return home for 6 months and then return to the UK annually. They do not know if they will be placed on the same farm, but what is clear is that the UK food system is reliant on them to pick, pack, and process food.'