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Aeolienne

So who's going to pick our fruit?

Tightening of immigration laws means farmers face losing 50,000 tonnes of fruit

By Cahal Milmo
The Independent
Monday, 12 May 2008


Millions of pounds worth of soft fruit and vegetables are likely to be left to rot in fields this summer because of a shortage of foreign pickers caused by the falling value of the pound and new restrictions on the number of seasonal labourers allowed to enter Britain, farmers' leaders have warned.

As the harvesting season for the UK's £3.5bn horticulture industry gets under way this month, growers are fighting a losing battle to recruit enough labourers from across the European Union to pick more than 50,000 tonnes of strawberries, raspberries and other soft fruits being cultivated for the domestic market.

With thousands of workers from Poland and other eastern European countries returning home to profit from their own booming economies, the reluctance to join the annual picking bonanza is being held up as evidence of Britain's dwindling attraction as a destination for migrants willing to accept low wages or undertake unskilled jobs. A mixture of rising aspirations among the once plentiful supply of foreign labour and Whitehall red tape is being blamed for a "heartbreaking" situation where thousands of tonnes of produce could go to waste.

One Herefordshire farmer faces the loss of strawberries worth £200,000 and Scottish growers are warning they could lose up to a fifth of this year's crop, worth £5.2m. Gary Bruce, manager of a fruit farm in Arbroath, said: "If we don't get people by the end of May, it's a major problem. If the fruit isn't picked by 3 June it will be wasted."

The National Farmers Union (NFU) told The Independent that the labour shortage is worse than last year, when a smaller dip in the supply of pickers left an estimated £20m of fruit and vegetables putrefying in fields across the UK. Britain's soft-fruit industry, concentrated in Scotland, East Anglia, Kent and the Midlands, has been a success story in the past five years, growing by about 7 per cent a year and is now worth £220m.

But it is likely the labour shortage will result in supermarkets importing large quantities of produce from countries such as the Netherlands to make up the shortfall in stock and prices rising above current levels of about £2.50 for a kilogram of strawberries and £2.99 for a punnet of raspberries.

One reason being put forward for the staffing problems by growers is a government decision to reduce the number of workers allowed to enter Britain on a longstanding scheme aimed at foreign students.

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (Saws), which had previously allowed workers from non-EU countries such as Ukraine and Belarus to do the low-skilled picking work in Britain, is this year restricted to citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, who are members of the EU.

But a decision to reduce the number of workers under Saws from 25,000 to 16,250 this summer and the reluctance of Romanians and Bulgarians to travel to the UK to earn an income around the minimum wage for hard manual labour has left farmers and recruitment agencies struggling to find enough pickers. It is estimated that the shortfall could be as much as 25 per cent of the total needed.

Richard Hirst, chairman of the NFU's horticulture board, said: "We are looking at some big shortages. The crunch will come in the next two or three weeks when the soft fruit season starts in earnest. We are aware that growers have not been getting the numbers of pickers that they wanted and the result will be people will have crops out there that they won't be able to harvest.

"The new government rules mean the shortage is worse than last year and more crops will go unpicked. Supermarkets will look to import more fruit from wherever they can get it, at a time when we are all looking at the provenance of our food.

"The Saws scheme has run efficiently for decades and the vast, vast majority of those who take part simply return home to carry on with their studies. The Home Office somehow seems to think this is an issue about mass migration but that is simply not the case. We face the risk of growers simply deciding to give up and grow other things."

A request from farmers' leaders to the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) to temporarily extend Saws to allow 5,000 nationals from non-EU countries, where demand for seasonal work still remains strong, was rejected last week.

But operators of Saws and growers say the dwindling attractiveness of Britain for people like the Poles, who have seen the pound fall by a third against the zloty and wages rise by nearly 13 per cent back home, and the less physically demanding work available in sectors such as catering or hospitality have drastically reduced the pool of available labour.

Rachel Hubbard, director of Fruitful, a Worcestershire-based company that recruits Saws workers, said: "People are saying, 'Why should we come to Britain and earn £5.52 an hour, when we can stay at home and earn £7 an hour?'. The pound has dropped 15 per cent against the euro and that makes jobs on the mainland more attractive.

"Romanians and Bulgarians simply don't want to come to the UK in sufficient numbers and other nationalities can find work in shops and bars. Growers have to ensure that a certain volume is picked by the people they employ. If they can't reach those volumes then it is just cheaper to leave the fruit in the fields."

The company, which is offering to loan employees their travel costs to try to attract workers, said it is struggling to find EU-based staff. Concordia, another Saws operator, said it has seen a 20 per cent drop in inquiries and is up to 3,500 workers short.

Unite, Britain's biggest union, has called on farmers to attract more EU workers by increasing their wages but growers insist their margins to supply supermarkets and other retailers are so narrow that they cannot afford to pay any more.

The Government said the reduction of numbers admitted under Saws was part of a wider policy of cutting down on non-EU migrants performing unskilled jobs but said it would "continue to monitor" the scheme. A BIA spokeswoman said: "We are phasing out low-skilled migration from outside the EU because we think businesses should hire those close to home first. Some people have told us our immigration reforms are too draconian, but we think they're right for Britain."

'We have a pool of labour but we can't use it because of the new rules'

Nine years ago the Drummond family decided to invest heavily in the soft-fruit growing business on the Herefordshire farm they have owned for the past five decades. Now they are wondering whether it has been worth it.

Like many of Britain's fruit and vegetable growers, they have had little problem in securing a market for the 1,350 tonnes of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries they grow on their fields near Ross-on-Wye. The problem has been finding and retaining enough temporary workers to pick the luscious summer berries during a harvest season that will reach its frenzied peak in a month's time.

Ben Drummond, 27, who runs the family business, EC Drummond & Son, with his parents, said that although he had so far succeeded in filling his quota of 450 seasonal workers, it was likely he would face labour shortages as the picking season went on.

He said: "At the moment I have just got enough, which will hopefully see us through the peak in the first two or three weeks of June. But people will leave as the season goes on and it has become a lot more difficult to retain staff. There is a very real danger that crops will not be picked."

Following last year's summer, when a combination of bad weather and a smaller drop in the amount of labour due to reform of the Saws seasonal labourer scheme led to fruit being left to rot, some growers like Mr Drummond have decided to plant fewer crops this year.

But he says the lack of government flexibility over the terms of Saws, which is due to be abolished entirely in 2010, along with the rising price of essentials from transport to the polythene sheeting used to cover the tunnels where the fruit is grown, is causing growers to consider more lucrative crops such as cereals.

He said: "It seems ridiculous that we still have a pool of very willing labour from places like Russia and the Ukraine and yet we cannot use them because of the new rules."

His frustration at the Saws scheme is shared by Christine Snell, who last year lost more than £200,000 worth of strawberries due to a labour shortage at the 250-acre farm she runs with her husband near Hereford. This year she fears the situation could be worse because EU-based migrant workers who once filled the available places are finding more lucrative work.

She said: "Their aspirations are higher and with the free right to work, EU workers are going to factories, hospitality, things like the Olympics project, service stations and nursing homes."

John Sinclair, who farms 100 tonnes of blackberries, raspberries and strawberries at West Craigie on the edge of Edinburgh, added: "Normally I get around six emails a day from people asking for work. This year, it's only been six a week."
OP

Either more expensive domestic workers will be hired, in which case consumer prices will go up, and/or the market will be undermined by imports from other countries which have lower production costs.
ken69

Marvellous chance for our own unemployed.
Thought the whole idea of labour movement within the EU was to stabilise wages and therefore prices.
Can anyone unemployed legitimately refuse to work in the fields.?
RichardW

Ditto the above post. offer all the unemployed a job (that are abled bodied) & strike off all those that refuse.

Jsutme
Jamanda

Justme wrote:
Ditto the above post. offer all the unemployed a job (that are abled bodied) & strike off all those that refuse.

Jsutme


That's fine, as long as the transport to get there and accommodation that would be needed if people are forced to work miles away from their homes doesn't exceed the wages paid. - Oh and any childcare costs would have to be covered too.
OP

ken69 wrote:
Marvellous chance for our own unemployed.
Thought the whole idea of labour movement within the EU was to stabilise wages and therefore prices.
Can anyone unemployed legitimately refuse to work in the fields.?

That is exactly what has happened. The UK soft fruit industry might have died out years ago, if it were not for the temporary reprieve granted by EU accession of the eastern european countries, providing a short-term pool of low-cost labour. Now that these economies have started to catch up with the western european economies, their prices and wages are closer to ours so the margin which made it worthwhile for them to work in the UK has disappeared.
ken69

In ye old days, in this area, strawberry picking was a good earner.
For jam mainly and the best for the markets.
THEN it became cheaper for the canners to buy Polish strawberries, now apparently it's cheaper to employ Polish pickers here in the UK. Doesn't make sense.
Cheap labour (and wind farms) have saved many local small farmers from going bust.
wishus

It used to be a job that students did in the summer. But now students are more likely to spend their summers gaining work experience that looks more useful on their CVs.
RichardW

Jamanda wrote:


That's fine, as long as the transport to get there and accommodation that would be needed if people are forced to work miles away from their homes doesn't exceed the wages paid. - Oh and any childcare costs would have to be covered too.


That happens already for the overseas migrante workers so why would it be any different for the unemployed.

Justme
toggle

Justme wrote:
Jamanda wrote:


That's fine, as long as the transport to get there and accommodation that would be needed if people are forced to work miles away from their homes doesn't exceed the wages paid. - Oh and any childcare costs would have to be covered too.


That happens already for the overseas migrante workers so why would it be any different for the unemployed.

Justme


it only worked for them when the wages they could earn outstripped the costs to them. now for them, like our own people, the sums don't add up, so they are looking elsewhere.

And the sums don't add up for someone claiming, not for short term work.
RichardW

toggle wrote:


And the sums don't add up for someone claiming, not for short term work.


Thats the problem, they are too well off not working to bother working to get more.



Justme
toggle

pmsl.

and back in reality, it's more likely that someone will end up with debts they cannot afford to pay or loosing their home because of delays caused by going on and off benefit.

My situation is a priority, pregnant with 2 primary school age kids and it's taking 2 weeks before they will confirm I'm entitled to income support. How many people living on this form of benefit do you think are actually well enough off to be able to cope with this sort of delay regularly? My parents have given me money to feed my children in the meantime. Not everyone has family that can do that.

Oh yeah, I know people who have had to wait 3 months for a housing benefit claim to be processed. One council department taking so long to process benefits someone is entitled to, that another council department is filing paperwork to evict them from their homes for nonpayment of rent.

i'ts not that people on benefits are well off, it's that they don't have a safety net to be able to cope with these delays because they don't ahve savings becvause they don't get enough money to be able to afford to safe and pay bills.
Andrea

Justme wrote:
toggle wrote:


And the sums don't add up for someone claiming, not for short term work.


Thats the problem, they are too well off not working to bother working to get more.




I don't believe that is the problem. The difficulty is that this work is classed as temporary, something that the UK benefits system doesn't encourage.
OP

Speaking from my own limited but personal experience, I think there *is* a certain degree of benefit dependency. Out of an adult population of about 50m in the UK, only 30m are actually income taxpayers, and of those, half the total income tax the government receives comes from just 10% of them.
toggle

yes, there is, but that isn't going to be solved by demanding that people take short term work as fruit pickers 200 miles from where they live to benefit people who want to keep prices on strawberries low while the people being forced to take these jobs get even poorer
tahir

toggle wrote:
yes, there is, but that isn't going to be solved by demanding that people take short term work as fruit pickers 200 miles from where they live to benefit people who want to keep prices on strawberries low while the people being forced to take these jobs get even poorer


Agree. I don't think that Tiptree jams (as an example) are going to be able to fill their picking requirements from local labour regardless of how much they pay or any coercion on the part of the authorities.

At the lower end of the pay scale it's very hard to actually to make the move from benefits to waged. We've been thinking about running a small chicken operation here, this would mean hiring someone. We know someone in the village who would love to do this, unfortunately she'd need us to pay her over £400 p.w. in order to offset her lost benefits (single parent).
toggle

cheer me up some more tahir....

Sad
RichardW

tahir wrote:

unfortunately she'd need us to pay her over £400 p.w. in order to offset her lost benefits (single parent).


Which is a crazy situation for two reasons.

1, That she is better off on benifits than a over £20k per year job

2, That benifits need to be so high to pay for a reasonable standard of living.

If living costs were lower then so could benifits.

Surely she could claim working tax & family tax credits to top up the lower wage you could offer her & she would then be better off than purely on benifits?


Justme

PS yes the time it takes to go on & off benifits needs looking at.
OP

toggle wrote:
yes, there is, but that isn't going to be solved by demanding that people take short term work as fruit pickers 200 miles from where they live to benefit people who want to keep prices on strawberries low while the people being forced to take these jobs get even poorer

I certainly agree that is not the solution - propping up an industry that seemingly is no longer viable in the UK (regrettably). However we seem to have a tax and benefits regime that encourages non-employment, or makes it difficult for people to enter employment.
toggle

Justme wrote:
tahir wrote:

unfortunately she'd need us to pay her over £400 p.w. in order to offset her lost benefits (single parent).


Which is a crazy situation for two reasons.


the biggest problem is usually childcare.
RichardW

toggle wrote:
Justme wrote:
tahir wrote:

unfortunately she'd need us to pay her over £400 p.w. in order to offset her lost benefits (single parent).


Which is a crazy situation for two reasons.


the biggest problem is usually childcare.


I can understand that as when the OH wanted to go back to work after the third child (other two dint need child care as they were older) it would hgave take BOTH our wages to pay the bill.

Justme
earthyvirgo

Are benefits really that much these days?
Gosh, I'm stunned that the figure can be as much as £400 a week!
How is that figure calculated ...
Not surprising that some people chose it in preference to working.

It's a long time since I claimed unemployment benefit.
The last time it was imminent, the amount I would have received was so meagre, I got a job the very same day, not a job I wanted at all but it meant I could make ends meet.

EV
toggle

FFS.

of course they aren't getting that much in benefits. for a start, you need to take tax/NI off that.

then they have to consider the extra costs that having to get childcare would bring, before and after school care, plus full time care in holidays, plus inset days and election days etc. plus time off when the kid is ill and can't go to school/nursery/childminder. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7214704.stm

that might give you an idea.
RichardW

I think the £400 per week is when you totaly come of benifits with one child. Its not always the direct benifit but what else you get because you are on a benifit even if its only a penny.

Like
free school meals
Free perscriptions
Council tax reduction
Council rent reductions
Free dental treatment (if you can get it)
Help with glasses & free eye tests
I am sure there are more too


Justme
toggle

Justme wrote:
I think the £400 per week is when you totaly come of benifits with one child. Its not always the direct benifit but what else you get because you are on a benifit even if its only a penny.

Like
free school meals
Free perscriptions
Council tax reduction
Council rent reductions
Free dental treatment (if you can get it)
Help with glasses & free eye tests
I am sure there are more too


Justme


milk tokens and the maternity grant are what i've found so far, if you discover anymore, let me know.....
RichardW

Oh forgot all about milk tokens.

Mind you registered alcoholics get paid extra to buy booze (or is that a myth?).


Justme
sean

Myth.
toggle

probably.

although I have been told that it's the addiction where badly managed withdrawal is most likely to be fatal.



i can now spend my milk tokens on fruit and veg as well as milk though. hopefully the boobies work so i won't need powdered stuff.
Andy B

Back to the fruit picking, you didnt need to be Mystic meg to see this one comming. Some time soon the laws will be relaxed / ignored for immigration from outside the EU as a way of ofsetting the fact that this is a very expensive place to be. The value of the pound needs to drop, devaluing just about everything in this country as it does so, but that will allow us to quietly adopt the euro as our currency and fall neatly into line with Europe. Fruit growers are just an early casualty.
Stacey

Benefit rates are clearly displayed on the govt site for anyone who's labouring under the misapprehension that people claiming welfare support are rolling in it.
earthyvirgo

toggle wrote:
FFS.

of course they aren't getting that much in benefits. for a start, you need to take tax/NI off that.

then they have to consider the extra costs that having to get childcare would bring, before and after school care, plus full time care in holidays, plus inset days and election days etc. plus time off when the kid is ill and can't go to school/nursery/childminder. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7214704.stm

that might give you an idea.


Sorry, didn't mean to cause offense.

EV
dpack

iww
OP

When I was growing up there were no migrant workers. I worked weekends and holidays on a local farm, probably being paid below the minimum wage (which I don't think existed then) and certainly in conditions that would these days warrant some kind of "risk assessment" (e.g. standing in a grain store whilst they poured more corn in, rather difficult to breath, or carrying 2 x 25Kg bags of potatoes at once because it was quicker that way). Maybe I was exploited, but I also earned a lot of money, and, perhaps more to the point, learned about hard work. So maybe the fruit farmers should recruit children.
RichardW

Ditto above post.

Justme
toggle

I had a choice of stuff like fruit picking or working in tourist trap catering type stuff. I would suspect the 14 hour shifts I was working were illegal then, the levels of hygiene defiantly were.
ros

might not be very well paid, but these days I would have thought fruit picking was ideal work for teenagers in the long break between end of O's and start of September term for As.
Was what we did.
Stacey

There's a long list of what children can't be employed to do on LA websites.
toggle

ros wrote:
might not be very well paid, but these days I would have thought fruit picking was ideal work for teenagers in the long break between end of O's and start of September term for As.
Was what we did.


I cleaned cages in a vet that summer iirc.
ros

toggle wrote:
ros wrote:
might not be very well paid, but these days I would have thought fruit picking was ideal work for teenagers in the long break between end of O's and start of September term for As.
Was what we did.


I cleaned cages in a vet that summer iirc.


somewhat less legally than picking fruit I also worked behind a bar!
OP

Stacey wrote:
There's a long list of what children can't be employed to do on LA websites.

Something has gone wrong somewhere in all this ... and our children - as well as our small local farms and businesses - are losing out. The good old days were not necessarily that good, but somewhere between then and now common sense went out the window and was replaced by local authority risk assessments.
Jamanda

ros wrote:
might not be very well paid, but these days I would have thought fruit picking was ideal work for teenagers in the long break between end of O's and start of September term for As.
Was what we did.


Agreed. But people of that age aren't children. And I don't see why the age of a person should stop them being covered by the same health and safety at work regulations as anyone else.
ros

Jamanda wrote:
ros wrote:
might not be very well paid, but these days I would have thought fruit picking was ideal work for teenagers in the long break between end of O's and start of September term for As.
Was what we did.


Agreed. But people of that age aren't children. And I don't see why the age of a person should stop them being covered by the same health and safety at work regulations as anyone else.


Definitely as long as elf and safety is applying common sense --and be paid the going rate as well. But why are they not doing it? parents don't allow it? kids don't want to work? school's starting A level course at the end of the summer term?
Jamanda

Well the article that sparked this thread was dated 12th May. Exams go on until the back end of June.
Actually, in my opinion many sixth formers work too many hours (mostly bar and kitchen work and waiting on tables here). I ask what they are doing at the weekend, hoping to hear tales of teenage hijinks and frolicking to hear "working Friday night and Saturday and Sunday".
toggle

Jamanda wrote:
Well the article that sparked this thread was dated 12th May. Exams go on until the back end of June.
Actually, in my opinion many sixth formers work too many hours (mostly bar and kitchen work and waiting on tables here). I ask what they are doing at the weekend, hoping to hear tales of teenage hijinks and frolicking to hear "working Friday night and Saturday and Sunday".


I think this may also be part of it, those teens looking for work can find the jobs in restaurants or bars or shops and that is easier work than fruit picking.
OP

Well another difference between when I was a teenage farm labourer and now is that I was working because I wanted to ... not because I faced the prospect of going to university and coming out 3 years later with £30K of debts, which unfortunately seems to be the reality facing the new generation. I'm certainly not saying that everything was better back then, but something has gone very wrong somewhere.
Aeolienne

Harvesting the fruits of your labourers

An article written by Tim Harford on the 16th of August, 2008.
Published on Undercover Economist.


For many business owners, getting the most out of staff is a perennial problem. In the case of fruit farmers, perhaps perennial is the wrong word: workers show up only for the summer harvest. In a couple of weeks they will be heading home, usually to a university course somewhere in eastern Europe.

Tough work for the fruit pickers, the business is also a headache for the owner, who must offer a pay scheme that both satisfies minimum wage laws and motivates workers in an industry in which slacking is an understandable temptation.

The owner of a large fruit farm business, “Farmer Smith”, was pondering the problem one Christmas, when he discovered that the connection between pay and performance was also an area where economists were scratching around for solid evidence.

And so an unlikely alliance was formed between Farmer Smith and the economists Oriana Bandiera, Iwan Barankay and Imran Rasul. The economists would design and administer pay schemes, and in exchange for that (and for confidentiality) Farmer Smith would let them treat his business as a gigantic laboratory for researching the nexus between pay, workplace friendships (which they mapped out) and workers’ productivity.

The owner had been paying a piece rate – a rate per kilogram of fruit – but also needed to ensure that whether pickers spent the day on a bountiful field or a sparse one, their wages didn’t fall below the legal hourly minimum. The owner tried to adjust the piece rate each day so that it was always adequate, but never generous: the more the workforce picked, the lower the piece rate. But his workers were outwitting him by keeping an eye on each other, making sure nobody picked too quickly, and thus collectively slowing down and cranking up the piece rate.

Bandiera and her colleagues proposed a different way of adjusting the piece rate – one that workers could not influence with a collective go-slow – and measured the result. By the time the experiment was over, Farmer Smith’s initial scepticism had long evaporated: the new pay scheme increased productivity (kilograms of fruit per worker per hour) by about 50 per cent.

The next summer, the researchers turned their attention to incentives for low-level managers, who would also be temporary immigrant workers, but who would be responsible for on-the-spot decisions such as which workers were assigned to which row. The researchers found that managers tended to do their friends favours by assigning them the easiest rows. This made life comfortable for insiders, but was unproductive, since the most efficient assignment for fruit picking is for the best workers to get the best rows.

The researchers responded by linking managers’ pay to the daily harvest. The result was that managers started favouring the best workers, rather than their own friends, and productivity rose by another 20 per cent.

Small wonder that the economists were invited back for another summer. They proposed a “tournament” scheme in which workers were allowed to sort themselves into teams. Initially, friends tended to group themselves together, but as the economists began to publish league tables, and then hand out prizes to the most productive teams, that changed. Again, workers prioritised money over social ties, abandoning groups of friends to ally themselves with the most productive co-workers who would accept them. In practice that meant that the fastest workers clustered together, and again, productivity soared – by yet another 20 per cent.

The series of experiments provided a fascinating confirmation that financial incentives can trump social networks, with some precision and much detail about the mechanisms involved. Bandiera and her colleagues have now stopped the experiments, in the belief that there is nothing more to be gained from this particular seam of inquiry. The owner does not seem to agree: he’s hired a consultant to keep on hatching new performance pay schemes.
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