Farmers who have received death threats for flying in potato pickers from Eastern Europe hit back today, saying ‘What else could we do – British people haven’t wanted this sort of work for decades.’
Fearing spuds, strawberries, plums, parsnips, rhubarb and other crops will rot in the fields, planes were chartered to bring Romanian workers to the UK but it’s led to online abuse including threats to kill.
NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairwoman Ali Capper blamed it on reports of ‘migrant labour taking British jobs’ when the truth is, she claimed, that ‘British workers haven’t wanted to do them for decades’.
More flights are expected over the coming weeks and months as fears over a seasonal labour shortage mount, despite calls for a new ‘land army’ of home-grown workers to keep the UK’s supply chain going.
Workers plant crops in a field near Boston, Lincolnshire, as thousands of people applied to pick crops on farms to plug the labour shortage of overseas workers prevented from coming to the UK because of coronavirus travel freezes
Tens of thousands of Brits have applied for fruit and veg picking roles but people actually agreeing to go out in the fields in all weathers is very low, according to recruitment agencies.
They claim as few as one in 10 British people end up accepting a job when it is offered to them.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today one volunteer who applied to work on UK farms said he had not yet been called on.
Nick Jarman, from Sussex, said: ‘My contracts are all self-employed and have been suspended so I found the relevant agency and applied. I can honestly say I left no stone unturned and nobody has bothered to get back to me. Since then one agency called me and said all their vacancies were on hold.’
A farmer drills seeds in a field near Castor, Cambridgeshire. Tens of thousands of Brits have applied for fruit and veg picking roles but people actually agreeing to go out in the fields is low
‘I’m surprised because I’m immediately available, hard working, not at all phased by getting up early in the morning and long shifts. Then you see stories about people being flown in from Romania in the middle of a pandemic. It doesn’t add up for me.’
While another volunteer claimed that farmers would not allow her to bring her own camper van accommodation as they were already offering shared hostel accommodation for workers.
Figures from the Alliance of Ethical Labour Providers – made up of Concordia, Hops and Fruitful – show there have been almost 50,000 applications from UK-based workers since mid-March, with 6,000 of interviewed for roles.
But out of just over 1,000 job offers so far, nine hundred of the applicants rejected the work.
In Scotland, Angus Growers, – a group of 19 soft fruit farms, has had applications from 2,714 people but has so far seen just 141 actually start work – a conversion rate of a paltry five per cent. The firm has previously said it needs 3,000 pickers this year.
According to the British Growers Association, 70,000 seasonal staff a year are needed (Boston, Lincolnshire, pictured)
Factors contributing to drop-outs included contract length, difficulty getting to and from farms and a ‘desire to only do part-time work’, according to Concordia.
It’s led to worries over the cost implications of training up an inexperienced workforce as opposed to ‘old hands’ from places like Romania who know what it takes to be relentlessly picking crops for hours on end, often in bad weather.
Ali Capper said ‘You’re going to be training a much higher proportion of people from scratch than you would normally.
‘The industry is also having to introduce social distancing measures and PPE and there will be a slowdown on lines in packhouses – a whole raft of things that are going to put costs up.’
NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairwoman Ali Capper blamed it on reports of ‘migrant labour taking British jobs’ when the truth is, she claimed, that ‘British workers haven’t wanted to do them for decades’
The requirement for workers to self-isolate for two weeks prior to starting has been a stumbling block, said British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward.
But there is hope things will improve with the government having launched a ‘Pick for Britain’ jobs website this week.
Mr Ward said ‘One person I spoke to took on 30 people from a local agency and another took 20 people who’d directly applied for jobs.
‘They were all UK nationals and the businesses said they were really good. We have to remain positive – this is a marathon, not a sprint.’
He warned that training up raw British workers will ‘take up a mountain of management time as most crops take two to three weeks to get to grips with’
‘You’ve got to get muscle-memory and then it’s about understanding what the specification is, what to pick, what to leave, how to trim it, how to pack it. It will be difficult.’
British Summer Fruits chairman Nick Marston warned that a rookie picker would probably ‘have less than a third of the productivity of an experienced one’.
As a result, the cost of gathering in the crops would be ‘considerably higher’ this year, prompting fears that prices in the shops will soar.
There are also fears about how long-term the new pickers will be.
Mr Marston said many of those looking for crop-picking jobs had been furloughed from other sectors.
‘Some are coming out of the construction industry and hospitality industries – as soon as those sectors reopen, they’ll want to go back to them.
‘You can’t afford to be over-exposed to UK labour because it could disappear very quickly as the economy starts to open up again.’