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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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39 comments

  • @samphire - You are kind of make the point for me. For you an increase in prices is acceptable and a price worth paying to have 'taken back control'. For many people with a comfortable lifestyle this is the case. But for a thousands of families already struggling a small increasing in costs is all it takes to push them to breaking point. You are fortunate that you don't need to deal with choices like feeding your kids but not yourself, but lots of people do. What I was getting at was it's the unintended consequences of the uncertainty we face that are being unrepresented and under-reported.

    Report this comment

    Rushallchap3

    Monday, March 20, 2017

  • All the people saying we should just raise prices to attract locals is ignoring the presence of perfect substitutes. For example a sugar beet grown in Britain is exactly the same as a sugar be grown in France, Germany, or Russia meaning farmers can't pass on the cost of increased wages because people would just buy from different sellers because one sugar beet is a perfect substitute for another sugar beet (the same is true for any crop). Also supermarkets couldn't pass on the increased cost of produce because the industry is so competitive if they raised prices people would just take their business to another supermarket.

    Report this comment

    Z:)

    Monday, March 20, 2017

  • What a load of kibosh, propagated again by the anti brexit brigade and to quote someone else it what you call "FAKE NEWS".

    Report this comment

    John L Norton

    Saturday, March 18, 2017

  • I suppose I feel even worse in that our comments on this website don't mean anything at all and no-one really takes our comments seriously even though we feel so strongly about things.

    Report this comment

    Sarah B

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • I just wish that our job centres would be more proactive in getting the long term unemployed into work and our farmers would take them on board. We need to work together now.

    Report this comment

    Sarah B

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • N4N - I work in education so I know that there are so many young adults who are not gainfully employed.

    Report this comment

    Sarah B

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • @RushallChap ..... you don't half run on! I wouldn't mind a bit paying more for my veggies. A bag of carrots 50p, cauliflower 65p, sprouts 50p ..... they're so cheap anyway. I would rather people were paid a decent wage to grow or pick these. Try and stay on topic.

    Report this comment

    samphirelover

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Absolutely Kenneth! Farmers have relied on this cheap labour resource for far too long and migrant workers have been very happy to fill the gap because 'the low wages paid in this country' is still more than they would get at home but this culture is doing our own workforce out of work, increasing our benefits bill, so farmers need to pay a proper wage so that our own workforce is employed.

    Report this comment

    Sarah B

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • I would have thought there was something pretty wrong with an industry that relies on cheap labour to make a profit.

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    kenneth jessett

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • There are many children who have finished their GCSEs and A Levels who could do this work, but choose to sit at home with their Ipads, XBoxes etc.. I did this work in between my results so why can't they"?

    Report this comment

    Sarah B

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Sarah. Are you sure there are vast numbers of young unemployed sitting around on their X boxes. I thought unemployment was actaully quite low now. Truth is we need and always have seasonal workers often from afar.

    Report this comment

    Normal4Norfolk

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Russellchap3... have another g and t with ice and slice and calm down. You are talking rolocks again.

    Report this comment

    Nakita Ponnly

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • It's interesting that this article states that Brexit makes it more difficult to find labour but there is also another article which has been written today by the EDP which has a more positive attitude towards Brexit ie "Brexit could bring major opportunities for farming and horticulture, says Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association chairman Sir Nicholas Bacon" As I've said before, no one really knows what will happen when we eventually leave the EU but I do feel that there is more that could be done to get more young people involved in agriculture rather than claiming benefits and playing on their X-boxes!

    Report this comment

    Sarah B

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Amusing reading all the well-off posters griping about about how (other) British people don't want to do hard work for long hours for poor wages. Perhaps if they showed us by example, we'd develop a better attitude. There's no better lesson why the unions are still needed than to read this thread.

    Report this comment

    martinh

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • @samphire- yes, your gangmaster neighbor might do that, or I suppose he might not. If he does and he has to pay more to the pickers he'll have to charge the farmer more. If the farmers costs are more he'll either need to pass those costs on the consumers, or if the shops won't accept an increase either make a loss. Whilst there's a school of thought that says you 'never see a poor farmer' round my way there are plenty who are only just about getting by and would struggle with increased costs to stay in business. Increases if shops accept them will be passed straight on to you and I. But I imagine a few bankrupt farms and a few hundred thousand people struggling to feed themselves and their families is well worth it to take back control and all that jazz. The farmers could, of course, diversify into solar and wind farming, but every time they suggest that the nimby gang get out in force. There are pretty tough choices coming and it'll be interesting and terrifying in equal measure to see the choices Mrs May et al will make. Given her performance this week with a massive tax Uturn and falling straight into the SNP's spectacularly obvious trap and her imminent Uturn on school funding, it doesn't bode well.

    Report this comment

    Rushallchap3

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • As Samphirelover states, this is exactly what needs to happen and we need to try to get the younger people involved in helping with seasonal jobs rather than them claiming benefits. Their benefits should be stopped if they refuse to do such work. Let's face it many young people of my generation were expected to help out at harvest time etc why should things be any different now?

    Report this comment

    Sarah B

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • I live fairly close to a gangmaster. He never advertises locally for workers. Not in local magazines, on notice boards or on the job centre site. He gets them in from other countries and houses them in houses or caravans he rents to them. Many have now returned to their own countries as their own economies have picked up. Maybe now he might advertise locally and offer a decent wage.

    Report this comment

    samphirelover

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Trev57. In fact, a lot of field work is still done on a piece work basis - but with the legal requirement that the workers receive at least the agricultural minimum wage for the number of hours they work. Fast workers can earn a lot more than that minimum. Those who pick so little that they do not reach that minimum amount still get it paid - but unless they manage to speed up quickly they won't keep the job for very long. The only exceptions to piece work are some very delicate things where speed is likely to cause damage to the produce - but that always has been the case, as I recall from picking blackcurrants as a teenager, 50 years ago.

    Report this comment

    Wymspen

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Absolutely obvious to me that minimum wage killed farm work for most Brits, farmers used to pay seasonal workers based on productivity, so much a kilo, so much a basket so much a ton etc. Now its minimum wage regardless of what your productivity is, and Brits won't put their backs into it, dawdle around all day, draw minimum wage. No use to the farmer whatsoever. Whereas eastern Europeans come in, work like Trojans, earn both themselves and the farmer plenty of cash. That is why its absolutely obvious to me that the UK will never ever be the economic powerhouse that the little band of brexitaires keep banging on about. Always remember a few old boys I used to work with, don't rush boy, don't get extra for rushing, or all we are here for is to make the boss rich, and my favourite was, a screws only a nail with threads, you can hit them both with a hammer, didn't really matter if a week later the door fell off.

    Report this comment

    trev57

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Like your final summing up NR_Proud ..'We did have half a chance when we were a part of Europe, but the Sun readers & Jeremy Kyle fans have killed that'.. we will see more and more negative impacts of Brexit and we haven't even left the EU yet... well done Brexiters :-(

    Report this comment

    Bygravey

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • @Washmonster: what a load of piffle. No government 'encouraged' \ forced you to buy a house, nor take out a mortgage, that was your choice under free market conditions. As for saying you wouldn't work for £14,000; that's the sorry attitude of too many people in this country. It explains as to why 'Brits' aren't employed in jobs because they have no persuasion to go out and earn a living as jobs are 'below them'

    Report this comment

    NorthCity

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Well said Wash Monster. The easy way out has been taken for too long. Food is relatively cheap and remains a low proportion of the household budget and would be even lower if people bought unprocessed foods. In my recent experience students cant get a look in for seasonal work because it is stitched up by agencies-yet when I was a student Lin Can etc ran on local student labour in the summer. Yes I know the season for some things is extended by polytunnels but there will remain those wanting to supplement their income or their pensions- I wouldnt say no to three months of easy raised bed polytunnel strawberry picking. The hours have changed and seem fit only for those who have nothing other to do but crash at the end of the day-I see leek gangs working from very early until 6 pm and so their days may be 14 hours including travel.

    Report this comment

    FlintinChalk

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • I am not sure that I credit one of these posts in its entirety for the simple reason that most enterprises I know of, which use large numbers of labourers, do not employ direct. I may be wrong of course. Surely unsuitable would count as a dismissal and mean the individual would not be entitled to job seekers allowance for some time. Until I see one of these employers saying they hire unskilled labour direct I will remain under the impression that they use agencies which guarantee to provide a set number of workers a day. The EU field workers I see are older than school leavers and already have experience of land work. Which is why employers like them for tractor drivers etc., instead of training a local boy and having to pay him mans wages. But I do agree that they know how to work-they are old style, more like local rural people used to be. And many of working class families in our towns have been a long time away from the grind of regular manual work and need reminding.As one post points out many of us have done our time in potato gangs or whatever. Now the demands of the market have changed the way things are done-once the ladies and the old boys of the Fens and Norfolk did the gang work for farms. Now it is mechanised and often contractors are involved. The ladies have a car and drive to a more amenable job and the kids have to stay in school til 18 , the old boys are not fast enough and every vegetable is washed and trimmed and packaged to within an inch of its life, which needs much more labour. But that labour should not be having to share a house with umpteen others, it should be paid so it goes someway to maintaining family life and doesnt subsidise the likes of Tescos. Employers will have to work a bit harder to engage local labour and find agencies that will do so and will organise transport for those who did not get their licence cheaply in Eastern Europe. The benefits system also needs to be changed so that low earners are not left high and dry at the end of a seasonal spell of work. People will have to learn to wash and chop their own vegetables.Who will miss those horrible bagged salads anyway?

    Report this comment

    FlintinChalk

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Hereandthere - I know Brown used the phrase British jobs for British people, but Nigel Fartage repeated it several times during the referendum campaign. In fact he actively promoted positive discrimination against foreign workers. Agree about never seeing a poor farmer. "I've never seen a farmer on a bike!" as the old song goes.

    Report this comment

    POGAl

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • You reap what you sow.

    Report this comment

    CityDweller

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • As a former field manager with one of the companies mentioned, I know from experience that the problem has been created by this country breeding a race of lazy youngsters. We were often sent UK applicants from the job centres in Ely, Downham Mkt & Kings Lynn, and rarely did any of them last longer than a few days, and many of them were not capable of lasting the first day. It was either too loud, too dirty, too cold, too many hours and they knew that as long as one of us managers signed their card as "unsuitable", their benefits would be reinstated. I always "explain" the situation as this - the shift starts at 7am, the europeans come to work at 6.30am, they have their overalls on and ready for work at 6.55am, The english come in at 7.05am and want to put the kettle on ! As "your next PM" I shall limit benefit payments to claimants to 12 weeks, if after then they have not found a job, they can starve; this country is laughed at the world over simply because we are still living in the past - Dining out on stories of the Brit's owning half the world, being a member of the Commonwealth & of late, Europe are things of the past... People should now realise that we are a tin-pot little country with few friends. We did have half a chance when we were a part of Europe, but the Sun readers & Jeremy Kyle fans have killed that

    Report this comment

    NR_Proud

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Pogal The British jobs for British workers was not the leave campaigns mantra, it was the mantra of a Labour leader one Gordon Brown. Businesses managed quite well before they tapped into this endless supply of cheap labour from the EU. They are mechanising production more and more and the need for workers is falling year on year. But farmers are always moaning about something but they seem to do alright thank you very much. You never see a poor one do you.

    Report this comment

    Hereandthere

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • I agree Ted, there are lots of people on unemployment benefit who simply don't want to work,a dn think that manual labour is beneath them, and why work when you can get paid for sitting on your backside at home. If there is a job and you are fit enough to do it then you should have to do it or loose your benefits. SIMPLE AS. in my early years we all worked in the fields spud bashing strawberry picking etc etc there were no shortage of workers then, nd in truth there are not now, people have become to expect something for nothing.

    Report this comment

    countrybumpkin

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Some of you are a bit wide of the mark. Retaining a workforce is not the problem. You cannot retain workers even by paying higher wages when the work is only seasonal - not all year round and not long term. No doubt everyone who voted for brexit and is currently unemployed will jump at the chance to work in the fields. British jobs for British workers was the mantra of the leave campaign.

    Report this comment

    POGAl

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Pol Pot is alive and is called Ted and living in Norfolk. The Killing Fields of the Fens

    Report this comment

    VgerT

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Just like the all important car washers these jobs are never advertised for British workers .It's all about CHEAP labour . I'm sure if those unskilled jobs were advertised locally at £7.50 an hour there would be no problem filling the vacancies .

    Report this comment

    spark

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • no shortage of able bodied people out there living off state paid benefits who claim they are unable to find work, round them up, put them in a minibus, ship them out to the fields,they don't work? no money, no benefits. not rocket science is it.

    Report this comment

    ted

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • The left bias pro remain elements of the edp must be rubbing their hands in glee with this story. Maybe now the farmers, supermarkets and gangmasters will pay a better wage to attract British workers into the profession. And yes, I work in agriculture and no, I won't work for 14k a year as I have a mortgage (as I was encouraged by the British government of the time to buy a house) and I am not prepared to live in Friday Bridge subsidised work camp.

    Report this comment

    The Wash Monster

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • PaulWho, yes it is the answer to offer better wages, mass immigration has made labour cheap for large employers with no care for their welfare, minimum wages if you dont like it then they will find someone else. People like you chirp on about employment law and workers rights under the EU and say how great it is, then conveniently choose to look the other way when cheap labour is exploited by "struggling" farmers.

    Report this comment

    Jimhow

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • The days of companies exploiting workers by paying rock bottom wages is thankfully coming to an end. The penny is at last beginning to drop that, to recruit and retain workers, they need to pay a realistic wage. Not the very least they can get away with.

    Report this comment

    Hereandthere

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Maybe now is the time to go to local job fairs and advertise in the British job centers. Unemployment isn't at an all time low, people on job seekers is as they are the only ones counted. There are people without a wage living on our streets and those who the system have sanctioned, offer the jobs to them to help get back on their feet! I would love to work out in the fields but my disability, sadly prevents me from manual labour at ground level

    Report this comment

    local lass

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Absolutely, pay better wages. I always thought that our vegetables were far too cheap under the EU!

    Report this comment

    PaulWho

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Offer better wages - that is usually the solution if a business is unable attract staff.

    Report this comment

    GoodRockinDaddy

    Friday, March 17, 2017

  • Now, who could have predicted that?

    Report this comment

    PaulWho

    Friday, March 17, 2017

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