As a business that works closely with Produce suppliers, we were interested to find out how concerned key players in the Produce sector are about the ability to recruit seasonal workers post-BREXIT when freedom of movement ends.
Each year 85,000 seasonal workers are employed within the Produce and wider Horticulture sector, with 95% coming from EU countries. Two thirds of farms have reported a shortage this year.
Although Theresa May has suggested in her Chequers blueprint there could be concessions, allowing some EU workers into the UK, nothing has been proposed to allow the tens of thousands of EU seasonal workers who come to the UK every year at present to return after Brexit.
The UK government has promised seasonal workers will be allowed to continue to come to the UK until the end of 2020 but, after that, no one knows what will happen.
We have contacted some of our clients within the sector and researched what other stakeholders and businesses are saying, to find out how concerned the industry is about recruiting staff post-Brexit, with some interesting findings.
Is Picking Low Paid?
We established that crop picking is actually reasonably well paid. According to the government, fruit picking comes with a decent wage, a subsidised home in the countryside. The problem seems to be that although the pay is reasonable, the toil and effort required is high, particularly compared to other jobs that pay slightly less but require much less perspiration.
Feedback seems to suggest that even if the Farms paid higher wages, say £11 an hour, the labour would still not be available in the numbers needed and with the summer heatwave ripening the fruit faster than normal, many farms are struggling to keep up.
Fruit Pickers in the UK will earn a minimum of £7.83 plus holiday pay and a bonus for picking over targets. Good pickers can make over £100 for eight hours and usually get paid overtime rates at time and a half.
Jobseekers are told that fruit pickers in Britain can earn up to £675 a week in comfortable conditions where the work is done standing at tables, but this figure may be ambitious. At Rectory Farm in Oxfordshire, a top-earning strawberry picker will be paid £550 per week. Last year, East European cherry pickers were earning £120 -150 a day depending on speed and appetite for work.
Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, puts average pay at between £8.50 and £10.00 depending on speed of work, while Steven Munday, CEO of trade body British Apples & Pears, says in his sector it is on average £300 and £350 a week based on 40 hours worked at £7.50 to £9. “Many can earn more by doing up to 60 hours or piece work. We have a good number earning over £500 per week on a 48-hour week,” he adds.
Are there any benefits?
Bed and board at a subsidised rate. Many farms have taken to charging the bear minimum and offered incentives to migrant workers who can bring in their friends or family to work.
Many come from EU countries, stay for the summer and are accommodated in static caravans in the countryside. Many farmers put on entertainment and activities for their EU workers.
Is it Back breaking Work?
You don’t even have to bend over. The work is done standing at tables. Nick Marston, BSF chairman, said: “Farm work is always portrayed as very low paid and back-breaking but it is not the arduous work it was 15 to 20 years ago. The work is almost all done standing up because the strawberries are on tabletops. The pay, including productivity bonus, is substantially more than working in the hospitality industry.”
For those who are working in fields, it’s all about self-preservation and technique with squatting, crouching and sitting cross-legged all better alternatives to the pain of standing and bending at the hips.
Picking fruit is hard work but can be fun. Applicants do need to be willing to get up early and work five and a half days a week. Picking tends to start at a time between 4.30am and 6am and continue, with breaks, until 3pm.
Will the Produce Industry struggle to find staff post-BREXIT?
We have not yet left the European Union, but already, major staff shortages are being reported. Last year in the UK the seasonal workforce fell by 17 per cent. This year 66 per cent of British farms have vacancies which means more overtime is be available to those who want it, boosting pay for those with the stamina to work 12 hour days.
Meg Marshall, of Muirton Farm near Blairgowrie, said she was between 50 and 100 pickers short of the 250 she needed this year to harvest her crop of raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and cherries. Like almost all fruit farms in Angus and Perthshire, Muirton relies on Eastern European seasonal labour to get the crop from the fields to the market. The number coming from Europe has declined over the past few years but this year, for Ms Marshall and others, the drop-off is critical. The heatwave has accelerated ripening but it has also made it more difficult for workers to keep picking through the day.
This double whammy has forced Ms Marshall to leave fruit to rot on the bushes, just six weeks into the season and she was not the only farmer suffering. “Some people are close to breaking point,” she said. “You put your heart and soul into it and we are getting kicked in the teeth anyway by what we get from the supermarket.” According to the farmers, the price of soft fruit has barely gone up in a decade because retailers are reluctant to break through the £2-per-punnet barrier.
Lochy Porter is a fruit farmer from Angus who knows that unless something is done to avert a looming crisis caused by Brexit, there is a strong chance there will be no more Scottish strawberries on supermarket shelves.
James Porter (Lochy's brother) who runs another fruit farm near Carnoustie, agrees “The fruit and veg industry is 100 per cent reliant on seasonal workers. If we don’t have this support, you can forget about any home-produced fruit and veg on the supermarket shelves,” he said.
Lochy’s East Seaton Farm on the outskirts of Arbroath employs 1,000 seasonal workers to pick 500 acres of fruit. Almost all of these workers come from Eastern Europe. They come for the season, stay in static caravans on the gently sloping site on the edge of the North Sea and rise at 4.30am to harvest strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.
Last year, fruit worth half a million pounds went unpicked in Angus alone. “I know of other growers who lost crop last year,” said James Porter. “There is nothing we are seeing now that is telling us that the same thing isn’t going to happen again this year, or worse.”
Will EU Workers return post-Brexit
Many Farmers believe that migrant workers will not return post-BREXIT if the government makes them complete paperwork months and face a climate that makes them feel unwelcome.
It has been commented that workers from the EU will just find another summer destination, such as Spain and Germany where they can travel to freely. Some EU workers that come to the UK work through the summer and then stay on in the UK for a holiday, but with limited time visa this may not be possible.
Alexander Gabura, 30, a Romanian, has been coming to the UK to pick fruit for several years and believes other EU countries will lure many Romanians away from the UK after Brexit. “It will be harder if you have to get a visa,” he said. “The visas have to be for three months or six months. They will go elsewhere.”
Let’s not forget, these migrant workers are here to earn and the fact that the pound isn’t worth what it was further compounds the issue. Before the referendum, an hour on the minimum wage in the UK was worth approximately €2 more than it is today. That’s a loss of €16 every day, or €80 each week and a clear motivator to go and pick fruit somewhere else.
What can be done to ensure the UK Produce sector can recruit the people it needs?
Perhaps the answer lies close to home. For example, Farms within the county of Angus require circa 1,800 seasonal workers each summer and according to NOMIS (UK labour market statistics) there are 2,500 unemployed males and 2,600 economically inactive students in Angus. If the demand can be met with local workers, surely that is the best solution but regrettably to simplistic.
Ministers are taking some small steps to alleviate the issue by producing myth-busting guidance to help jobcentre advisers explain to unemployed Britons the benefits of spending the summer in a polytunnel harvesting strawberries.
The Department for Work and Pensions said guidance to jobcentre advisers “will help them debunk myths about seasonal work and help them explain what the roles entail to claimants”.
Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, believes that more of the jobs would be filled by British people if their misconceptions about the work were challenged. She met members of British Summer Fruits (BSF), which represents berry growers, last month and asked them to supply facts and figures on seasonal work that will be included in the guidance.
It does seem that the UK government has the power to stop this potential fruit crisis and if countries such as Israel and Australia, that have stricter immigration controls than we will have after BREXIT, can still allow overseas fruit pickers, then so should we. The Government needs to look at these countries for ideas on how to tackle the issue.
Just like BREXIT negotiations, time is running out for UK Farmers and it is to be hoped that a solution can be adopted quickly to avoid millions of pounds of crops rotting and the consumer losing the opportunity of buying home-grown fruit at their supermarket.
Food Careers with additional material sourced from: www.thetimes.co.uk