Securing enough labour for new-season crops has become the main concern for vegetable growers as the industry adapts to the continuing volatility in supply and demand – and the loss of most of the food service market – as a result of measures introduced to meet the Covid-19 pandemic.
British Growers Association (BGA) CEO Jack Ward says supply chains “have stood up pretty well” in the face of such unpredictability, especially for staples such as onions and carrots because shoppers are favouring produce with a long storage life. “Growers and packers were coping with the additional problems and extra costs of adopting social distancing and introducing extra hygiene measures to their work teams,” he points out. “Fortunately, it seems buyers have been realistic – asking growers what’s available and taking it.”
While campaigns to recruit furloughed British workers have met with some success, growers and labour agencies have invested more than ever to bring ‘returnee’ seasonal workers back from eastern Europe because their skills and experience are so valued.
The NFU, AHDB, BGA and Association of Labour Providers have collaborated with Defra to co-ordinate recruitment of furloughed workers under a single ‘Pick for Britain’ umbrella which opened a web portal on April 17 (pickforbritain.org.uk). And the NFU has negotiated with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to introduce a temporary flexibility in licensing for labour providers, so those operating in sectors such as hospitality and food service, which now have a surplus of agency labour, can offer workers to farmers and growers.
Some labour providers, and larger-scale growers who routinely recruit their own seasonal labour, have set up schemes to employ furloughed UK staff.
G’s, which employs around 2,500 seasonal workers, is using a mix of new UK workers and experienced returnees from eastern Europe.
Beverly Dixon, G’s group HR director, said over a three-week period to mid-April G’s had recruited almost 500 UK-based seasonal workers in time to harvest the first of its UK salad crops in the final week of April. The company targeted students as well as workers furloughed from the hospitality sector, who already have the food hygiene skills the company values.
But needing skilled and experienced people, too, who could only be sourced from eastern Europe, G’s has been chartering flights to bring workers in from Romania. “G’s has worked to the best practice advice of Public Health England and these workers will be quarantined within small working teams in our hostel accommodation,” she said.
Photo credit – NFU