BY JIM WEBSTER
Last week seventy seasonal workers out of two hundred working on a Herefordshire vegetable farm tested positive for Covid. All across social media a storm of people asked, “Why are we bringing in Romanians when there are people in this country looking for work?”
The problem is that whilst people in this country may be looking for work, they don’t want that sort of work. Apparently only 0.2% of those who expressed an interest ending up taking the jobs.
There are serious problems.
First, farms tend, strangely enough, to be rural. This means that those who want jobs often have to move to them because they cannot commute. Accommodation is often provided, but it tends to be the sort of accommodation you’d expect to be provided by a low margin industry. Working away from home isn’t necessarily an issue, the off shore industry is staffed by people who do it. But that is a lot more profitable an industry, paying far higher wages.
The second problem is that it looks as if the retention of farm workers from the UK is low. So you pay them, spend time training them, and then they just leave. Amongst East Europeans retention runs at over 90%. Amongst workers from the UK there aren’t really comparable figures but it might be about 40%.
The third problem is that it is hard and skilled work. Firstly it’s physical, you’re on your feet all day lifting, bending, carrying etc. But also the hours can be long. If a supermarket demands fresh produce delivered to their depot at 7am, then those doing the picking could be working for as long as there is daylight enough to see. Just to make sure the produce is there when the customer wants it. Also it’s the old problem with harvesting agricultural crops. When the weather is fine, you work. As any farmer will tell you, eighteen hour days during harvest are not unusual. The problem is that the British workforce, even if they wanted to do the work, often aren’t physically capable, and even where they are, don’t have the skills needed. Obviously you can train people who are willing, and end up with a good workforce, but they have to be willing.
And the fourth issue is that very few workers in the UK have experience in agriculture so they do need a lot of additional training. On the other hand, migrants often return to the similar work year after year lowering the time necessary for, and costs of recruitment, training and induction. Potential British recruits don’t know the job, they aren’t used to the industry culture, and the migrant worker who comes each year is already trained and knows how things work. Indeed some people have imported East Europeans to act as foremen and team leaders to help train the UK workers who do turn up. But when out of 36,000 applications, only 112 people actually take up a job offer, I suspect a lot of businesses have just given up on UK applicants.
Obviously things might improve. With growing genuine unemployment more people might look seriously at agriculture, but it’s obvious that there is no real enthusiasm for this and we will have to continue bringing in migrant workers for the foreseeable future.
Underlying all this is the problem of low margins. If you have Brussels sprouts sold to the customer for £1.12 per kilo leaving the farm at 29p a kilo, (figures from a couple of Christmases ago) there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for the agricultural industry. In this case, have consumers demanding cheap food shot themselves in the foot? Food has got so cheap the industry cannot afford to pay what the same customers would consider an adequate wage. Is food production caught in the same hypocritical trap that clothing is? People say how shocked they are at the wages paid by sweatshops, but then spend a couple of pounds on a garment they’ll wear once and throw away.
I suppose we could hope for a price increase, passed on to the producer so they could afford to pay higher wages. As somebody who has been in farming all my life I’m used to years when I make little or nothing, but I can quite understand those employed in the industry having a somewhat harsher attitude.
But without a price increase, what else is available? Now traditionally when the Government wants young men (and latterly young women) to serve it for low wages in poor conditions, it conscripts them. Frankly I cannot imagine this happening. I can see a lot of middle class and metropolitan commentators speaking favourably of the idea of conscripting the ‘gammons’, but should it be extended (as it always is) to the nice offspring of decent middle class families, there would be hell on.
Also, let’s be honest, what farm wants a bunch of conscripts who haven’t got a clue?
Still there is room for the state to move people into rural jobs that don’t exist yet. The government could create jobs picking litter and cleaning up after tourists. But seriously, if a young person asked me for job advice, I’d advise them to get into the civil service. I cannot imagine it getting smaller. Similarly those furloughed civil servants are unlikely to pass straight into redundancy. Guaranteed wage, guaranteed pension, and virtually no chance of losing your job, it could be the way to go.
Otherwise you might be stuck in agriculture – the industry the consumer created.
Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.