Bakers on Brexit

A bread factory in Greater Manchester produces 120,000 loaves in a single 12 hour shift. A group of 35 people; 22 people on production, 9 on despatches and four to five supervisors, achieve this feat everyday; twice. Several bakery brands that you buy, whether it be from Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, or Iceland, are mass produced in this factory.

One of my friends has worked in this factory for the last eighteen months. As the Brexit negotiations continue to headline news media, I was curious to know opinion of those who produce our bread. I asked my friend to speak with his fellow-bakers and, if they are willing, to note down their views and opinions.

Over the course of next two weeks, during his shift breaks, my friend spoke to the people who work in the bakery. The passages that follow is how my friend described his conversations with his fellow bakers. I have edited the conversation, only to clear their points and to cut repetition.

‘The first person I spoke with was K, a Pakistani guy who lives in Oldham. He has lived in this country for 15 years. He didn't vote in Brexit but supported the Leave campaign. He believes that Europeans have come to this country and have taken the advantage of the system. He said that due to European immigration, there are no places for kids in nearby schools and hospital services have worsened. K, like many other Pakistanis working in the factory, is happy with the decision. Another Pakistani, IM, from Ashton under Lyne, who is a shift manager in the bakery, says that “Those in our community who rely on benefits are now struggling due to benefits cuts”. IM attributes these cuts to the arrival of Europeans in the last decade.’

‘I also spoke with those who are from Europe: Three from Poland, two from Czech Republic and one from Portugal. O, who is Portuguese and lives in Manchester, said that it is good to be in Europe because we can move around and can work in different countries. However, O raised concern that many Europeans who come to the country rely on benefits. O suggests a time specific visa system which could be assessed if the person did indeed work or not. If the person worked during the period, their visa should be extended. O said that instead of leaving Europe, government should focus on legislating strict laws to cut abuse and exploitation of the benefit system.’

‘The three Polish men, who live in Ashton under Lyne, lamented the fact that they couldn’t vote during the referendum. If they could vote, they would have voted Remain. All three agreed that they have a better life in this country. They all pointed out that those who only rely on benefits and do not work would be a tiny minority. The two Czech Republic fellows, one lives in Openshaw and other lives in Ashton under Lyne, praised the importance of being in Europe. It is easy to move around. They said “It is easy to get a job here, money is good. We are happy. We should be in Europe”. The Brexit and aftermath continues to create uncertainty for them. They both said that things are good, why should we change it: “We don’t want Brexit. Things should not change”, they said.’

‘I also spoke to six English people. Three had voted Leave and are still happy about the decision. Two voted remain. One didn’t vote but in the hindsight sides with the Remain group. PS, who lives in Oldham, said “I don’t want these immigrants. One time we were an Empire. We ruled India, Africa. I was 8 years old when we became part of Europe and since then we have crumbled into taking orders from Europe. Two fingers to Europe. We should decide our own fate”.

‘S.T, a 54 year old man from Manchester, said that Europeans have attacked the very essence of English life. He was upset because he couldn’t bear several Polish bakeries, Eastern Europeans corner shops, halal meat butchers in the area. ST said: ‘We don’t want Europeans to tell us what to do in this country. They want to legislate the colour of writing boards in our schools. Six days a week I work but still live in a two bed house. I have worked hard, but Europeans come and claim benefit.’

‘J who lives in Oldham ‘wants out’ from Europe. J said that ‘We give so much money towards benefits. What about NHS, what about roads. We can spend on our infrastructure. We can invest. We didn’t fight two world wars to take orders from Europeans’. J didn’t support either the Labour or the Conservatives because of how they behaved during the referendum. According to J, the task of the political parties was to just take ‘consent of the people’ and not interfere with the Brexit referendum. J wanted politicians to remain neutral and not side with one side or the other during the Brexit campaign. Only then, J said, we would really know what people actually wanted: “They should only take our consent and not try to influence our decisions. I am looking forward to speaking with my local MP about how politicians behaved then”, J said.

‘There were two English people who voted Remain. PC, who lives in Manchester, wanted Britain to remain part of the EU. PC said that ‘integration is good for our society’. But he disliked the fact that Britain takes orders from the EU: “We must be able to change the law, and control our border. We don’t want Europeans to dictate what to do and what not to do”. D, who also lives in Manchester, is looking forward to his retirement abroad: ‘My parents live in Portugal and they are very happy there. After retirement I want to live in Europe. We can easily move to other countries. Why should be worry about anything else. I look forward towards a retirement life in a European country’.

L, who works as a quality controller and lives in Ashton under Lyne, didn’t vote in the referendum. She, however, wants to remain part of the EU. She said : “Everything is going good, why change the situation. Why choose uncertainty”.

These are the conversations that my friend had with people who work in that bakery. In Greater Manchester, 9 out of 11 districts voted Leave during the 2016 referendum. In four of the nine districts, over 60% people voted to leave the EU: Wigan (63.9%), Tameside (61.1%), Oldham (60.9%) and Rochdale (60.1%).

Understanding the reasons why these areas voted to leave Europe requires further investigation. The investigation should ascribe importance to each area and try to understand social, political and economic reasons for such a vote. This cannot be done in this post but some general remarks on the socio-economic conditions of these areas can go a long way in explaining the resentment of those living in these areas of Greater Manchester.

Coldhurst, in Oldham, according to End Child Poverty Coalition, has the highest child poverty rate anywhere in Britain. After adding the housing costs,  62.11% of youngers in Coldhurst  live in poverty. This is the only area in the entire United Kingdom where child poverty exceeds sixty percent. Among the top areas with high child poverty in England, three other areas are also in Oldham: Werneth (55.14%), St Mary’s (54.87%) and Alexandra (52.07%). These figures show that we need to reevaluate the claim that old generation hijacks the Brexit decision away from the young generation. From the point of view of young Oldhammers, there life is already hijacked by the current economic orthodoxy.  

People of Tameside don’t see the such high rates of child poverty rates as Oldham. The average child poverty rate in Tameside is 30.34% with only one area, St Peter’s, with child poverty rate at 46.50%. Nonetheless, people in Tameside face other problems. Tameside ranks 138th out of 150 Local Authorities for overall premature deaths. Tameside ranks 133rd out of 150 Local Authorities with premature deaths from cancer. Tameside ranks 145th out of 150 Local Authorities in England for premature deaths from heart disease and stroke. Similarly, in some areas of Rochdale, life expectancy is almost ten years lower for males and seven years lower for females compared with average life expectancy in England. Such a large gaps are only found when comparing European countries with countries from the global South.

Wigan fares better than other towns in Greater Manchester. Child poverty rate in Wigan is lower than Oldham, Rochdale, and Tameside. The health trend in Wigan has improved in the last twelve years. However, Wigan, along with Salford and Oldham in Greater Manchester, were three of the seven council areas in England that experienced ‘cuts of more than 40%’. A vote for Brexit here is found upon the resentment towards Brussels, “Do not want to be told what to do by the EU…” but also towards Whitehall. This is due to decline in living standards, changing of boundary lines and other cultural historical factors.

Since then, due to complexity over the Brexit deal negotiations, further uncertainty, no clear cut plan, and regular fear mongering from all sides, or due to disillusionment with how politicians have dealt with the issue, some may have changed their views on Brexit, and some have just lost any hope from politics. However, the underlying reasons for discontent continue to remain the same: the stagnant income, falling living standards, budget cuts, rising cost of living, insecure employment, child poverty, rising fuel poverty, rise in the use of food banks, decline in life expectancy are the realities of life for many people in Britain. In The Conquest of Bread, Peter Kropotkin lays down the litmus test for a social revolution:

“It is in order to obtain for all of us joys that are now reserved to a few; in order to give leisure and the possibility of developing everyone's intellectual capacities, that the social revolution must guarantee daily bread to all”.

Until such a basic guarantee is assured for everyone, resentment for fellow-bakers and fellow-residents will continue to brew among those who suffer.