Counties’ farmers ‘value public’s support’ as UK workers flock to take up roles

Leek planting at Home Farm Nacton Picture: HOME FARM NACTON

Leek planting at Home Farm Nacton Picture: HOME FARM NACTON - Credit: Archant

A call for British labour to help with seasonal work on farms has met with an “overwhelmingly positive” response across Suffolk and Essex, farmers’ leaders say.

Farmworkers at work at Home Farm Nacton - cauliflower cutters at work Picture: HOME FARM NACTON

Farmworkers at work at Home Farm Nacton - cauliflower cutters at work Picture: HOME FARM NACTON - Credit: Archant

But National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Suffolk county adviser Charles Hesketh warned there was no room for complacency as growers were still weeks away from peak demand.

The UK government launched a ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign earlier this year to try to attract UK seasonal workers to the fields after Brexit was compounded by the coronavirus crisis, which left many eastern European workers who would normally travel over to the UK stranded in lockdown.

MORE - Stockbrokers and film producers among new intake for ‘Vine Army’This year, the disease crisis has heightened concerns about importing seasonal labour – but farmers argue strongly that they are still very much needed if businesses are to function.

Early signs suggest that fruit and vegetable growers across the two counties have benefited from a wave of enthusiasm among British workers furloughed from work following the outbreak, with many signing up or showing an interest.

Suffolk NFU county adviser Charles Hesketh Picture: BRIAN FINNERTY

Suffolk NFU county adviser Charles Hesketh Picture: BRIAN FINNERTY - Credit: Archant

“We have heard from growers that there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the call for British workers to come forward this summer,” said Mr Hesketh.

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“This has been boosted by the launch of the dedicated Pick for Britain website last month and we really value the public’s support.

“Initial reports suggest that the early vacancies are being filled in Suffolk and Essex but there is no room for any complacency. We are still weeks away from the peak demand for workers.”

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Businesses still need to find seasonal staff throughout the summer, and into the autumn, to ensure they have enough workers on farm to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to supermarket shelves, he warned.

Against the backdrop of Brexit and the coronavirus, the use of farmworkers from overseas is beginning to meet with opposition – but farmers insist they are desperately needed.

In April, Ipswich MP Tom Hunt questioned the need for seasonal agricultural workers to be flown in from abroad and wrote to home secretary Priti Patel to highlight his concerns.

“Every sinew should be strained to make these jobs available to people already in the UK before considering bringing in workers from overseas,” he said.

“This must include tackling previous things like some farmers’ preference for east European workers who live in fleets of mobile homes on their land so they can dock housing and food costs from their pay, and thereby undercutting British workers. I’ll keep pushing the government on this issue.”

He took the view that people should only come to the UK at this current time “if there is a critical need and it really is essential”, he said.

However, he acknowledged there will also “still be a need to bring in some workers from abroad, in particular returnees with experience who can help maintain a good level of productivity on farm and train this new workforce”.

“I appreciate that in the past many food producers have been reliant on seasonal workers from abroad and that some attempts were made to advertise these positions to people who currently live within the country, but there is a question as to whether every effort was made. Clearly having to import labour at this time is far from ideal,” he added.

Mr Hesketh said while there was a major drive under way to fill the 70,000 seasonsal roles required to plant, pick and pack UK fruit and vegetables, with a “fantastic” response from the public, those coming in from abroad to work on the fields were vital for their skills and experience.

“Farmers and growers are incredibly grateful for the support shown,” he said.

“However, returnee workers – the small number that have flown in from abroad - are incredibly important for farm businesses, due to their skills and experience.

“They are well versed in the health and safety measures on farm, both for workers and food safety.”

He added: “Returnee workers are crucial to help maintain a good level of productivity on farm and to help train this new ‘Pick for Britain’ workforce.”

Suffolk farmers were “incredibly proud” to be producing food for the nation at this crucial time, he added.

Local workers interested in seasonal work on farms can visit the Pick for Britain website here

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