Farms struggle to recruit seasonal European workforce following Brexit vote

PUBLISHED: 07:52 17 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:43 17 March 2017

G's Group: Workers harvesting iceberg lettuce

G's Group: Workers harvesting iceberg lettuce

G's Group

Farming businesses say they are struggling to recruit vital European seasonal workers for this summer’s harvest, as a result of the Brexit vote.

Beverly Dixon, G's Group HR DirectorBeverly Dixon, G's Group HR Director

The G’s Group, based at Barway near Ely in Cambridgeshire, employs 2,500 seasonal workers at the peak of the season, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, to gather and process the firm’s vast crop of salad and vegetables including lettuces and celery.

Beverly Dixon, group HR director at G’s, said the firm’s future concerns included potential trade tariff and border control issues, which could add difficulty and cost to moving equipment, goods and personnel between the UK and countries like Spain, where the company produces salads outside the British growing season.

But the most immediate effect has been on the labour force, where Brexit uncertainties and the plummeting pound have already prompted workers to seek jobs in countries like Germany and Norway.

“What has happened already is all about labour really,” she said. “After the referendum people needed an enormous amount of reassurance that their jobs wouldn’t be affected immediately. They didn’t feel welcome here and there were some examples of hate crimes, but since then that has died away because we spent a lot of time reassuring them that nothing would change at all for two years.

“We have managed that situation, but here it is all about seasonal labour for summer production. We managed to get through the last season, but now we are in the throes of recruiting for next season.

“So far we have had to invest a lot more time and money in recruiting these people. Because we have such low unemployment in the UK, we recruit from Romania and Bulgaria. We used to go to one place in each country and fulfil all our vacancies and be inundated with hundreds of people coming through the doors. This year we have had to go to two places in Romania, and two places in Bulgaria. We have got enough applicants to fulfil the roles but we are not massively over-subscribed like we used to be.

“If you are a seasonal worker and you know that things could change in the UK in two years’ time then you would probably go and secure a job in Germany. Their heads have been turned because of their earning potential, due to the value of the pound, and because of the uncertainty of Brexit.”

Those concerns were echoed by Richard Hirst, who runs a mixed farm at Ormesby, near Great Yarmouth. He said there had been some positives from Brexit for his business with the weak Sterling rate raising the value of world commodities like wheat – but his main concern was about his labour force.

His farm hosts up to 250 seasonal workers, many from eastern Europe, during the peak season to help with picking and packing of vegetables and salad, but he said it has become increasingly difficult to recruit people since the referendum.

“There is no doubt that it is becoming harder to recruit eastern European workers, the casual seasonal labour that we need,” he said. “The numbers are significantly down. We don’t yet know what the whole effect will be for the year, but there is less of a pool to choose from.

“I know a lot of people who are thinking about the crops they are growing to make sure that whatever they are planting is set to the labour requirement. It is restricting growth in the short-term.”

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