With the final take-up of the Pick For Britain scheme patchy, Government must come up with a ‘Plan B’ to ensure growers can continue to access enough labour after Brexit, says Daniel Zeichner, Labour’s Shadow Farming Minister.
As the clock counts down to this summer’s picking season, one question continues to go unanswered: are our farmers going to have enough labourers to pick their crops this year?
When I put this question to the Secretary of State in Parliament last week, his response was that the Government has estimated that only a third of the usual Eastern European workforce are here or are continuing to arrive, and that the rest of this year’s 70,000 or so workers needed to harvest our crops will – for the first time in many years – need to be drawn from the British workforce.
But challenges abound.
The Government’s welcome ’Pick For Britain’ campaign has gained some traction amongst those currently furloughed, but the final take-up has been patchy.
As I pointed out to the Secretary of State, it is reported that of the 50,000 initial expressions of interest to one of the main contract suppliers, just 112 had made it into the field.
The NFU report that there are still another 20,000 - 40,000 of workers left to find, and concerns continue as to whether this number will be met – and kept.
There are many uncertainties.
Will enough of those who have pledged to start farm work in June do so?
Will a significant number of signed-up furloughed workers drop out once lockdown restrictions ease, or if they do not find the work to their taste?
And how will the Government’s new plans to quarantine those flying in from abroad affect the seasonal workers who have yet to arrive?
The road ahead could well be one of continued recruitment and replacement drives for our growers – not ideal for work that needs commitment, time for training, and sustained levels of productivity.
This uncertainty remains a cause for concern, because one thing is clear: there is no Plan B from the Government, if enough British workers cannot be found.
Coronavirus may have thrown the issues around agricultural labour into sharp focus for this year, but these challenges were already on the cards for our farmers the moment the Government scrapped the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in 2013, and introduced restricted pilot schemes of first 2,500 and then 10,000 workers from abroad.
We already know that unfortunately, the main driving force behind the Government’s decisions in this area isn’t practicality or consideration of grower’s needs – it’s ideology, and a Brexit imperative.
What is also clear is that this means in moving forward, we urgently need a new settlement for agricultural labour.
If the Government’s plan is for 60,000 British workers to be recruited each year to pick our crops, they are going to have to step up and finally help address the perceived undesirability of seasonal agricultural work.
The pay, long contract periods in isolation from normal life, and a lack of regular hours and benefits such as pensions have not made seasonal farm work attractive to the British workforce to date.
And the scrapping of the decades-old Agricultural Wages Board in England by the Coalition Government in 2013 has not helped secure attractive conditions for workers.
There is money in the food chain – but apparently too little in the field at the moment to make the work desirable.
If our land army is to become permanent, and our harvests secure, the Government is going to have to start coming up with some Plan Bs – and some answers for the immediate future of this workforce.
Daniel can be found tweeting at @DanielZeichner