Poor working conditions combine with Brexit to cause huge decline in fruit pickers

fruit pickers
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Brexit has caused a “massive hole” in the numbers of people coming to the UK to pick fruit in the summer months putting growers “on the brink”, it is claimed.

The fruits of Brexit

Numbers of seasonal workers applying to work at one Kent-based company are down 90% in the last two years and there are fears for the future. Stephen Taylor, managing director of Winterwood Farms Ltd, said the labour market has got “tighter and tighter” over the last couple of years. He said the impact of Brexit on the flow of workers to UK farms is only getting worse. However, working conditions for fruit pickers have affected the recruitment of people from the UK to do the same work.

A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the government will “always back our farmers and growers” and ensure producers across the UK have the support and workforce that they need.

Speaking to the PA news agency, Taylor said:

95% of all fruit and produce picked and packaged in this country is done by eastern Europeans. From the end of June, people who haven’t got pre-settled status, at least, can’t work.

Read on...

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We are not talking about a few tens of thousands, we are talking hundreds of thousands of people less to work in the UK. That’s a massive hole.

Two years ago, Taylor’s company received about 20 applications a day from people wanting to come to the UK to work picking fruit, but this year it’s just two a day. He said:

We are right at the brink now

Taylor referenced the UK’s unemployment rate, which stood at 4.8% of over-16s for January to March. But he said it varies by region, and issues arose where British workers didn’t live in reach of farms. He said:

If we want the Brits to do that work they need to be mobile.

Get Britons picking?

In 2020, the government launched its ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign. Prospect summed up the issues with it, reporting:

5am starts, poverty wages and no running water—the grim reality of “picking for Britain”

One worker detailed their experience:

5am starts and 10-hour shifts leave little time for socialising. Our weeks are dominated by work. And it’s tough. Really tough. Being bent over picking fruit for most of the day puts huge strain on your body. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if we were adequately paid and properly housed. In reality, neither is true. The UK boasts the cheapest food in western Europe. My experience has made clear that this is only made possible through the neglect of employee welfare…

the notion that you can make good money through “piece work,” as has been asserted by both MPs and industry experts, is a fallacy. Unless you have significant prior experience, making anything above the minimum wage… highly unrealistic. After funds are deducted for rent and deposits, our salaries come to about £7 per hour. Furthermore, management’s conduct towards employees has been, at times, appalling. I’ve seen my colleagues berated, degraded and branded “stupid” by their superiors.

Coronavirus
The lack of pickers could hit supplies of fruit for supermarket shelves (Stephen Jones/PA)

Control

He also criticised the “politics” of the debate on seasonal workers coming from the EU. Taylor argued:

We are taking back control, as Boris would say, but when we are taking back control, we are actually deliberately throttling our own businesses because we know the thing we haven’t got control of is labour.

The solution is for the Government to recognise the fact that these people, they come and they go back home, so they don’t have any recourse to public funds.

Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits, said the soft fruit industry faces decreasing numbers of seasonal workers from the EU and the “impossibility of recruiting a significant proportion of our large workforce from UK residents”.

But he added:

Despite Brexit and restrictions on the free movement of workers, the industry has generally been able to recruit a large enough workforce for the current soft fruit season.

In short, we are confident that strawberries won’t be left in fields unpicked on any significant scale, although we can’t rule out pockets of issues on a few farms.

He welcomed the government’s decision to expand its Seasonal Agricultural Workers visa scheme.The scheme allows people to come to the UK for up to six months to do farm work. The government has expanded the scheme from 10k visas in 2020 to 30k for 2021.

A Defra spokesperson said:

Seasonal workers provide vital labour to ensure that local produce gets onto supermarket shelves.

We will always back our farmers and growers, and ensure that producers across the UK have the support and workforce that they need.

They also cited the department’s review into automation. They said the review will “pave the way for a pioneering and efficient future” for fruit and vegetable growers.

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  • Show Comments
    1. Farmers have ALWAYS been bad payers. That goes back into the mists of time, ever since the enclosure acts.

      They were, and are, happy to sack people, and on farms there is no properly organised labour. The only union is the NFU!

      In the 1970s, the strawberry picking season saw lots of children from the school I was teaching in at the time, accompanying their mothers to pick fruit. The children were sevfen to 11, but the farmer turned a blind eye, as did the authorities.

      Workers in the fens were expected to drop everything if called at 6am to be part of a “gang.” The money was lousy, but no other employment was available. Cheap, exploitable labour from EE gave farmers everything they desired. A compliant workforce, prepared to work 16 hours a day for terrible wages, and live in conditions unsuitable for human habitation. THAT is what farmers now decry.

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