The Acceptable Face of Child Slavery

BY ROGER WATSON

While we are not in the season for harvesting potatoes in this country, each time I open a pack of potatoes I cannot help being reminded of the October break we used to have from school in Scotland known as ‘The Tattie Holidays’ (the Scottish word for potato is ‘tattie’). They have almost faded from memory now as the generations of those—like me—who picked potatoes expire or fade into dementia. Starting in 1930, they have long since been abandoned, at least in name. But I was pleased to see that they do have a dedicated Wikipedia entry.

It is almost impossible to imagine such a thing as the tattie holidays and even children going en masse to pick potatoes. But for a working class boy like me this was an opportunity to earn big money. The rates of pay differed but they were anywhere between £5 to £10 daily – a fortune in the days I picked potatoes which was in the 1960s. It is reckoned that in today’s money £5 in 1965 was worth over £80. Some farmers paid daily, and I had never seen so much money. But we worked hard for it. The days were very long, the weather not always good and the work was utterly soul destroying.

Potatoes were picked from opened drills in the wake of a tractor trailing a machine which turned over the earth and then distributed the potatoes on the surface. Continual stooping to load the large plastic laundry baskets led to intense pain and difficulty standing up straight. If you tried to mitigate this by kneeling then you could not pick quickly enough, your boots filled with mud and there was nothing worse than having another section of ground turned over next to you if you had not completed your present section. Once the baskets were full older boys, late teens probably (those of us picking were probably aged 10 to 15), took them in pairs to load on to the trailer of another tractor which made its way along the already picked sections.

That was how it all worked but it would be simply unimaginable today that young children would be either expected or allowed to do this. Can you imagine? A couple of weeks off school these days means quality time on your PlayStation or X-Box (I know, I have four sons) and few self-respecting parents would allow their kids out of sight for long enough. From being picked up by the farmers in the morning to ‘lousing time’ (end of work) and being dropped off the whole process was fraught with near death experiences. I also doubt any of these farmers had been DBS checked and permitted to have children with them unsupervised by parents. God forbid! There was no training, no health and safety briefings and if you got injured picking potatoes, as some did, provided you were not bleeding to death then you simply sat at the side of the field until it was time to go home. Character building stuff.

We were picked up at various points in our villages very early in the morning by farmers with tractors and open trailers onto which we piled amongst miscellaneous items of farming equipment. Yes, you did read that correctly, open trailers from which we could plunge onto the road and into oncoming traffic at any point. I hardly recall anything so exhilarating in my whole life. Then the potato picking process itself. In addition to the risks of skeletomuscular injury we were exposed at very close quarters to tractors with their huge wheels sometimes just inches away. The potato harvester had no cover and anyone ending up on that was not going home on the farmer’s trailer. Most likely, they were not going home at all.

I look back on those days with relish. There was a sense of community and self-worth standing with your school pals at 6:30am on a drizzly Scottish morning. Conversations were mainly around what you had in your flask—usually tea—and what your mother had given you to eat. It pains me to recall that some of the children had nothing with them to eat or drink. When I was a lad in rural Scotland, poverty meant poverty. But, without making us appear like Mother Teresa, we did share, and people did take an extra sandwich in case somebody else needed one. When I was a lad in rural Scotland, caring meant sharing.

The tattie picking day was punctuated by an hour for lunch. We were reunited with our duffel bags with flasks and sandwiches and, if the weather was good, we could sit with our backs to a drystone dyke and bask in the sun. If the weather was bad, we could sit with our backs to a drystone dyke, soak up the rain and freeze. It hardly mattered as, whatever the weather, it was a break from the pain in your back, the cuts to the fingers and the ever present risk of being squashed under the wheels of a tractor. Lunch breaks were also educational. Not all those who picked potatoes were boys. Quite a few girls were also potato pickers and some of these would provide what I can only refer to as anatomy lessons to the more curious amongst the boys. This was not about sex; our backs were too painful, and we would not have known what to do; but I cannot help feeling that this was one of the most blatant examples of ‘girl power’ long before that was a thing. These young ladies were held in high regard, totally respected and treated like queens thereafter. Nevertheless, if I knew then what I know now, had I been a father in the 1960s no daughter of mine—girl power or no girl power—would have gone tattie picking.

Such is my ignorance and detachment from all things rural these days that I have absolutely no idea how potatoes get from the ground to those plastic bags in Waitrose. If potatoes are still picked by hand, then I am sure that an inordinate amount of form filling, background checking and training sessions is involved. The world may well be a safer place now, but is it better?

Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.

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