Pick for Victory – Your changing workforce
When I was a student, I spent a few weeks of the summer holidays picking apples in the fens. It was hard work and long hours, and not at all romantic or glamourous. Today, a large proportion of fruit and vegetables are still picked by hand by troops of temporary staff, usually visiting from the EU. This model has driven migration and quickly changed the face of my local town, and others in the area which also rely on agriculture as their main industry.
Although technology is now evolving to mechanise many jobs that are done by hand, some crops still require the dexterity of the human hand. For example, if I twisted an apple from the branch with the wrong technique, a bruise would develop. If this didn’t pass inspection, the one-ton box of apples I had harvested would be downgraded in value (as was my pay for that box!).
Brexit and Coronavirus combined have led to a huge agricultural labour shortage this year. ‘Piece-work’ is based on results, and so those who are willing to put in the hours, combined with attention to detail, can find the work profitable, even at low hourly rates of pay. However, without pickers coming from overseas, growers are worried about getting the harvest in this year – giving rise to many initiatives to involve students, furloughed works and the unemployed in agriculture for the 2020 season, and beyond. VE Day celebrations have inspired requests for a new “Land Army” to take to the fields; even the Prince of Wales is encouraging us to “Pick for Victory” today.
However, these roles require workers who are physically fit and able to work outside for long hours. Unfortunately, the press is reporting that some British workers who put themselves forward are failing to deliver as required. If this is the case across the whole country, the pressure will continue to mount for our growers; as demand fluctuates in line with lockdown and changing consumer habits. Not to mention, the potential difficulties of employing a new workforce, in a new way.
I know that farmers are familiar with unpredictable seasons and therefore appreciate the need to adapt, but this year’s harvest is certainly a new challenge for all. For growers who are employing a very different workforce this year, our employment and regulatory teams are here to help you. I would recommend seeking advice at an early stage to see off any potential employment issues that may arise. In addition, there are the health and safety aspects to consider when inducting a new group of workers to your business. This is even more important in the current climate, where social distancing and other health and safety measures must be upheld where possible. Visit our Coronavirus Hub to see our latest guidance; or contact our employment and health and safety specialists for some bespoke advice for your particular business.
With this peace of mind, we can all focus on the job at hand – pulling together to get British produce from farm to fork.