Why won’t British workers pick fruit?

Brexit is looming and the only thing growing in fields are fears that seasonal EU workers – the bedrock of our fruit and veg-picking industry – are staying away

Brexit, for many, is a celebration of a certain idealised Britain. It’s a return to bucolic, simple bliss – of rolling hills and a green and pleasant land.

But the green and pleasant land needs work. It’s worth a lot to us all. Agriculture raked in £24bn for the UK economy in 2016.

In recent years, we Brits have shown ourselves unwilling to get down and dirty in the soil. So, between March and November every year a 29,000-strong temporary workforce head to these shores to pick the soft fruits growing all across the UK – more than 95 per cent of them from the EU, mainly Romania and Bulgaria.

It’s tough work with dirty working conditions, long hours and demanding hourly targets. And it is now proving harder to convince EU workers to come back. Fears over Brexit and a depreciating pound is making the prospect less and less enticing when identical jobs are available in other countries like Germany, which has a more agreeable exchange rate.

Fruit picking
Fruit-picking-stats

Warnings came earlier this year about workforce problems. And as a result, British Summer Fruits report that production is down 15 per cent. They also say there have been 63 per cent fewer applications for positions this year. But consumer demand is going the other way – Brits eat 168,000 tonnes of strawberries every year, 150 per cent more than 20 years ago – meaning that an estimated 31,000 seasonal workers will be needed by 2020.

Nick Marston, the industry body’s chairman, says: “We are not talking about migration, we are talking about a proven system which would allow seasonal workers into the UK to undertake demanding and highly-skilled jobs — jobs which British workers either are not available to do, or quite frankly don’t want to do.

“It is important to remember that these are seasonal workers — men and women who come here to work, pay tax and National Insurance in the UK, contribute to the rural economy and then go back to their own countries at the end of the picking season.”

The job is tough and physical. There are early starts – shifts run from 6am to 3pm with breaks. In current heat a 45-hour week can look long.

But the pay on offer does not conform to type, with pickers typically earning on average between £400 and £450 per week – just above minimum wage – while the highest earners take home £675 with bonuses.

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In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

If it’s not money stopping people from the UK doing the work, what is it?

Paul Kelsey runs Kelsey Farms in Wickhambreaux, near Canterbury, and he believes that the British ideas of fruit picking need to change if there is to be a return to the Eighties when he used to put on a double-decker bus for local housewives to do the job.

“At the minute, we are doing okay for workers. Is it an ongoing problem? Yes. Are we thinking about how to work around it? Yes. It’s front and centre in our thoughts,” he says.

“If you look at British society, it’s very far removed from farm work and rural life and there is a perception that it is work that is not worth doing – there is a disconnect when it comes to farming.

“We’re in soft fruits and they are a perishable product – they need picking and they need to be picked every day otherwise you lose your product and not just a bit of it, you lose the whole lot.

“There is also a perception that if you come and do temporary work for us then you have to come off benefits and it can be difficult to get back on once you’re done. It is a long and arduous process to get back on and that can put people off when they can go into a town and get a permanent position in a high-street store.”

If you look at British society, it’s very far removed from farm work and rural life and there is a perception that it is work that is not worth doing – there is a disconnect when it comes to farming

The consequences of failure to fill the labour gap are clear – pay will have to rise and to meet that prices are going to have to go up. The Andersons’ Brexit & Seasonal Labour Report estimates that a 400g punnet of strawberries will increase by 35 per cent, costing £2.75 instead of £2. The £2 price point has remained constant over the past 20 years – a 1.39 per cent cut with inflation – as soft fruits have moved from a luxury to a staple product. If the supply chain continues to absorb a price rise then it will be felt in the pockets of producers; experts warn that it will also be passed on to consumers.

A rise would be felt by the country’s poorest, driving them towards cheaper processed foods and doing little to tackle obesity and the associated costs to the NHS. As Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University of London, puts it: “Low-income families will bear the brunt of Brexit.”

A robot solution

If British workers can’t be enticed into the fields then robots could offer another way. Belgian start-up Octinion has already trialled their robotic arm in the UK, while Cambridge’s Dogtooth has experimented with the technology in Australia, although its benefits are still to be seen.

The influx of foreign workers in the industry is by no means a new phenomenon. Irish migrants are known to have worked in the industry as far back as the 14th century while the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) introduced in 1945 after World War II left the workforce seriously short. Initially, it attracted workers from the Soviet Union but by 2008 it was only open to workers from Bulgaria and Romania. When freedom of movement restrictions were lifted across the EU in 2013, the scheme was ended.

If solid proposals are not in place before we leave the EU next March, an industry which is worth millions to the UK economy will wither on the vine

So far, nothing has taken its place, with the government only offering assurances that European workers can be recruited until December 2020 alongside a Future for Food, Farming and the Environment consultation that ended in May. Another report by the Migration Advisory Committee is pencilled in for the autumn.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove told the National Farmers’ Union that the case for a new SAWS was “compelling” earlier this year after president Minette Batters warned that the industry will see “veg rotting in the fields” without it.

But the campaign for SAWS to be replaced post-Brexit remains top priority.

“Politicians are making lots of positive noises, but the time for talk has long passed,” warns Marston. “What we need now is action and clarity on SAWS as a matter of urgency. If solid proposals are not in place before we leave the EU next March, an industry which is worth millions to the UK economy will wither on the vine.”

Image: Getty