East grower mulls production move to guarantee workforce

G's Group: Seasonal workers in a field

G's Group: Seasonal workers in a field - Credit: G's Group

A major Fenland grower says it may consider moving production overseas if arrangements are not made to guarantee its seasonal workforce after Britain leaves the EU.

G's Group: Workers harvesting iceberg lettuce

G's Group: Workers harvesting iceberg lettuce - Credit: G's Group

The G’s Group, based at Barway near Ely in Cambridgeshire, employs 3,800 people at the peak of the season, to gather and process the firm’s vast crop of salad and vegetable crops including lettuces and celery.

About 2,500 of those are seasonal workers, mainly coming from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. The plummeting pound has already prompted some to seek jobs in countries like Germany and Norway, and most British people are not interested in the jobs, despite the offer of apprenticeships and training schemes.

Beverly Dixon, group HR director at G’s, said she was confident the government has heard the industry’s calls for a seasonal work permit to be introduced, similar to the previous SAWS (Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme), which would give the European harvest labourers exemption from any post-Brexit immigration controls.

But if that does not happen, she said the company may have to investigate the option of moving production to countries like Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic, where G’s already operates farms. “Our worst case scenario is we would not have enough people to harvest the crops we grow,” she said. “We would be ploughing food in, because we would not have the people to harvest it.

G's Group: Workers harvesting iceberg lettuce

G's Group: Workers harvesting iceberg lettuce - Credit: G's Group

“We are optimistic that the government will give us a work permit scheme. Andrea Leadsom (the Defra secretary) is definitely positive and she understands the need for seasonal workers. But if they are not open to that, and the consumer still wants to eat lettuce, then we do have options.

“We have farms in Europe where we could grow some of our produce and import it into this country, which would reduce the quantity of UK-grown produce.

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“The other thing that sometimes gets missed is if we are not operating sustainably here in Cambridgeshire there is the knock-on effect on local business, hauliers, agricultural engineers and supermarkets. It affects the whole local economy.

“But there will be no knee-jerk reactions and we are not doing anything rash until we know what Brexit looks like.”

Even before Britain’s EU exit is formally triggered, Ms Dixon said there has already been an impact on the G’s seasonal workforce.

“At the moment, with the pound plummeting, their earning potential is less,” she said. “So they are becoming more and more attracted to work in places like Germany and even Norway. There is a rise in hate crime and people are feeling a degree of being unwelcome so that, coupled with the deflation in the pound and worries about whether they will be able to come back next year, is affecting their decisions.”