In the last few years Britain has been facing a growing problem finding labourers to pick its fruit and vegetables. Before Brexit was on the political map, farmers reported struggling to fill the estimated 50-60,000 required positions for seasonal field workers, especially as the pound weakened against other currencies, decreasing the incentive for workers from overseas.
According to the National Farmers Union, in 2018 only one per cent of the harvest staff was British. The vast majority came from Eastern Europe, particularly Bulgaria and Romania. But as the UK voted to leave the EU there will be an ending to freedom of movement on 31 December 2020, a situation which MP Helen Whately described as making the problem “more acute”.
The introduction of the Conservative’s new points-based immigration system in February 2020, which permitted only “high wage, high skill” workers earning over £25k, was a further hurdle for farmers looking to recruit from overseas markets. But all of these problems were compounded by the unexpected arrival of the coronavirus to the UK.
The coronavirus and subsequent international travel ban have now added a totally unforseen element to what was already the perfect-storm of circumstances to destroy the labour market. Environment secretary George Eustice said the government estimates only a third of the necessary migrant labour managed to get here before lockdown. And with picking season starting in early May, the government is scrambling to plug the gap.
What is Pick for Britain?
With migrant fruit and vegetable pickers unable to travel to the UK, the ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign is channeling the spirit of the Second World War land army and asking people to help with the coronavirus-induced labour shortage.
Without this backfill the UK could see millions of tonnes of fresh produce rot in the fields; a problem that would undoubtedly cause prices to rise in supermarkets. The problem is so acute that even the royal family has been promoting the cause. In a video posted to the Clarence House Twitter on 19 May, Prince Charles said Britain needed an “army” of workers: “Food does not happen by magic; it all begins with our remarkable farmers and growers".
It is specifically hoped that those who have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis, or have been furloughed on the government job retention scheme, will take up seasonal roles. On 26 April Eustice said those being paid by the government should be encouraged to “get a second job”.
The Pick for Britain website adds: “It is hoped those who many have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis - chefs, retail assistants, waiters and others - will seize an opportunity for a very different kind of work."
What jobs are available?
The Pick for Britain website says the type of work available ranges from “pickers and packers, to plant husbandry and tractor or forklift drivers”.
The type of role will depend on where in the country you want to work and the type of business you work for. Some of the work will also depend on the weather and the time of year.
Picking will involve working outside in the fields, in polytunnels or in glasshouses, picking fruit and veg such as strawberries, apples, peppers, asparagus, spring onions.
Packing requires working in a packhouse to sort fruit or veg and pack into units, ready for distribution. Pick for Britain says: “A certain level of manual handling will be required, but training will be given.”
Plant husbandry is another option for workers. This is more about keeping plants and farms healthy, rather than just picking produce. The role could include responsibilities ranging from planting, weeding, plant management and maintenance.
There is also a requirement for more heavy-duty equipment operators such as forklift truck drivers, tractor drivers and van drivers.
Are there any requirements for these jobs?
Pick for Britain says you would usually need to be “at least 18 years old” to work on the farms but there may be some specific roles for 16 to 18-year-olds available.
You will also require a certain level of fitness in order to do the manual labour required. “A good level of fitness is usually required. There’s no mistaking picking can be hard work and can involve being outdoors through all weather conditions,” it says.
You will also need flexibility in terms of hours you work and when you can be available. The duration of each job depends on the role and the farm. Each farm will provide a timeframe for roles when you contact them.
The website says: “Farms usually work from first thing in the morning until mid-late afternoon. Packing is often done in shifts and can carry on until later in the day. Farms will usually offer a full working week and often overtime as well if wanted. It’s important you discuss start/finish times and hours with the directly farm you apply to.”
Will I get training?
Pick for Britain says all workers receive induction, training and a full health and safety briefing.
“For most roles, including picking, previous experience is not required, and training is given by the farms. For roles where it is required, full training will be given.”
How much will I be paid?
The rate you are paid will depend on your employer and the job you do for them.
You may be paid a set hourly rate or a per piece rate, depending on the type of work you are doing. However it promises you will always be paid the national minimum wage or living wage for the average hours you work in a pay period.
Remember you are also able to do work on farms if you have been furloughed and continue to collect your furlough payments from the government, as long as your current employer contract allows it and your employer agrees to you doing so.
Do they follow social distancing guidelines?
As part of the government’s plan to ease lockdown in England, all businesses are required to adhere to rules that make it a Covid-secure workplace. The government says it will be doing spot-checks on businesses to ensure this is happening.
Pick for Britain says: “All farms are following government guidelines on social distancing for those working on farms, please ask for details from any prospective employer if you wish to obtain more information.
“Groups living in an on-farm caravan or cabin together can be treated as a household for social distancing purposes and can live and work together on a farm. If one member of the group becomes ill with COVID-19 then the others in the group will have to self-isolate as well, just as any other household would do.”
The government also classifies farm workers as key workers. This means you are permitted to travel to and from work and your children will still be able to attend school while you are working.
You can apply to help Pick for Britain online.
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