The Office for National Statistics published an article in February 2018 “Labour in the agricultural industry, UK: February 2018” in which they summised:
- It is difficult to know the size of the agricultural labour market and the role of migrants because there are no official data sources designed to understand this particular issue.
- The British Growers Association survey is the best estimate of “positions filled” by all non-EU seasonal workers which estimates that 75,000 non-UK horticultural seasonal labourers were employed in 2016.
- DEFRA’s June 2016 Survey of Agriculture and Horticulture estimates that there were 466,200 workers in the agricultural sector of which 64,200 are seasonal, casual or gang workers.
- The highest estimate of all seasonal workers is around 77,000 if none of the summer fruit workers go to work in the poultry sector over Christmas.
It has been estimated that in May 2017 there was a 17% shortfall in seasonal workers . At the same time the year before there was a reduction of 4%. The reasons that were put forward for this were that the UK was perceived to be xenophobic and racist by overseas workers following the decision to opt out as well as the dropping value of the pound. The impact of this reduction was reported by the press last year to have caused significant food loss with food being left to rot in the fields.
We wanted to establish whether this was journalistic hype, so we have spoken to a number of our horticultural clients and contacts to find out if their own experiences mirrors the situation being reported in the press. This is their observations:
- In the first and into the second quarter of 2017 the shortfall in seasonal workers was considerably higher than 17% and reached levels as high as 25%
- Numbers did pick up in the second half of 2017 and in the first quarter of 2018 the supply of seasonal labour does not appear to be disastrous as they have seen regular seasonal workers returning to the UK to work
- There has been a significant reduction in seasonal workers from Poland. Polish workers however are being replaced by Lithuanian, Bulgarian and Romanian workers
- The initial panic following the announcement that we would be coming out of the EU has calmed down a bit. There was an initial perception by EU seasonal workers that they may not have work at all and in some instances workers fears were heightened by the poor portrayal of the UK in the national press overseas as not wanting migrant labour and some being told by their home countries that if they applied for British citizenship they would loose their homeland status
- There does however appear to still be an enthusiasm to work in the UK (at the moment) although there is a concern about the possible supply of seasonal worker from September 2018 onwards
- There is a need to plan ahead much better and to be much more accurate about the number of seasonal workers needed because the agency pool of seasonal workers is now definitely smaller
- A number of growers are already paying seasonal workers above the national minimum wage, but they felt that they were likely to have to pay higher wages. There were however other factors impacting on retention and recruitment of seasonal workers such as geographical location and other competitors. One of our clients a major grower told us that Amazon had opened a larger depot near to them and had advertised for 4000 staff. They then took a further 4000 staff over the Christmas period. They lost staff because Amazon paid more and the work was indoors
- The general view was that the bigger growers will dominate and continue to get bigger as the smaller growers struggle to cope. This is because bigger growers and cooperatives will be in a better position to pay more and take on the supermarkets. It appears that we are in an age of agricultural revolution with a focus on automation, co-bots and artificial intelligence. We are however realistically 5 – 10 years away from commercial solutions
- The sector is definitely being cautious about investments while the issue of labour sources remains uncertain. There was a view that post-Brexit it will be ok, but the next two years will be the hardest. If the Government will not properly address the seasonal labour issues then growers will have no option but to reduce production or go out of business.
We surmised from our discussions with our clients and contacts in the horticultural sector that they are they are just coping, trying to be positive and getting on with it. Now with Michael Gove having at least signalled that the government will support a deal for EU farm workers after Brexit we wish they would get on and announce some details. Our message is #Buylocal #Supportlocal.
If you are a grower or producer and you want to meet like minded people join our Food & Drink Networking Club by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org