Fruit & Veg

I always enjoy articles like this:

UK summer fruit and salad growers are having difficulty recruiting pickers, with more than half saying they don’t know if they will have enough migrant workers to harvest their crops.

Many growers blame the weak pound which has reduced their workers’ earning power, as well as uncertainty over Brexit, according to a BBC survey.

About 80,000 seasonal workers a year pick and process British fruit and veg.

Most of them are from the European Union, mainly Romania and Bulgaria.

I like them because, unlike 95% of people who comment on the subject of picking fruit and vegetables, I have actually done the job in question. I spent a lot of time on a farm when I was a kid which included vegetable picking, mainly potatoes. This experience landed me a job on what was (and maybe still is) Britain’s largest vegetable farm in the summer of 1996 between school and university.

The farm, situated near Pershore, Worcs. was absolutely massive by British standards, thousands of acres. It produced damned near every vegetable I could think of, and I remember picking lots of broccoli, runner beans, dwarf beans, cauliflower, asparagus, and cabbages. The produce would be put on ice and packed in a plant on the farm and collected by lorries belonging to the UK’s supermarket chains. My fellow workers were mainly students, most of whom were young Brits. There were about ten or twelve of us. We had a Chinese guy called Zu who had taken part in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and was studying at an agricultural college nearby. If you put him on an hourly rate he would snooze all day. Put him on piecework, i.e. pay him per kilo of produce picked, and he’d be like a man possessed. We’d have to drag him out of the runner bean fields at dusk, slashing at the air with his knife. Apparently the year before the farm had employed a lot of Polish and Bulgarians but the summer I was there none showed up, or they had problems recruiting them. I don’t know, but the farm ended up with a handful of Brits and the odd foreigner.

They called us the “student workers”, but there were others. A gang of gypsies used to pick broccoli and cabbages, but it was in the spring onion fields where the real labour was carried out. Gangmasters from nearby Birmingham used to come down with vans filled with Indians, both men and women, who would work all day in the fields under a blazing sun. I understand the farm paid the gangmasters and they in turn paid the workers, probably thruppence. The gangmasters also kept order. This system of companies keeping the labourers at arms reach gained notoriety in the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, and I believe legislation was tightened in its wake. I was probably one of the few who knew what a gangmaster was when that story hit the news. I have no idea if they’re still used on the farm I worked on in Pershore, but I suspect so.

About 80,000 seasonal workers a year pick and process British fruit and veg.

Most of them are from the European Union, mainly Romania and Bulgaria.

Well, what did they do before Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007?  Unfortunately, British Summer Fruits, the body which represents soft fruit growers, doesn’t seem to know and would rather engage in scaremongering:

It warns that soft fruit prices could rise by up to 50% if the UK relied solely on imports.

“It is inconceivable that people who voted to leave the European Union wanted to destroy an iconic and incredibly competitive British horticulture industry,” said Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits.

“Failure to secure the future of soft fruit production in the UK will have a negative impact on the economy, family budgets, the nation’s health, UK food security and the environment,” he added.

The incredibly competitive British horticulture industry which appears to be utterly dependent on cheap foreign labour. I wonder if construction companies in Dubai boast of being incredibly competitive, too?

The BBC asks the obvious question:

So why doesn’t horticulture, now a £3bn industry, simply try to employ British workers?

The answer is straightforward for Beverley Dixon, from G’s Fresh, which employs some 2,500 seasonal workers growing salad crops across large areas of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, as well as other farms dotted across the UK.

“We operate in areas of such low unemployment, so here in Cambridgeshire, it’s less than 1.5%,” she said.

“So there simply aren’t the people available to do the work, added to which UK people tend to want permanent year-round work and this is seasonal work.’

But doesn’t follow it up with the other obvious question: why don’t unemployed people from the cities go and work in the fields like I did? Perhaps because they won’t like the answer: they don’t want to, and benefits mean they don’t have to. Whatever the reason, this is not an argument for keeping Britain in the EU.

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25 thoughts on “Fruit & Veg

  1. I remember before the A10 group joined the EU in 2004; the fruit and veg was left to rot in the field and the country starved.

    🙂

  2. That article made me chuckle because as far as I can tell the lack of supply of workers could almost entirely be attributed to a lack of willingness to increase wages. Of course this may well mean fruit and veg becomes more expensive, but why is this kind of situation always described as a “labour shortage” when really it’s only a “shortage of labour willing to be paid at that rate for the work”? And where are the protests from living wage activists?

  3. That article made me chuckle because as far as I can tell the lack of supply of workers could almost entirely be attributed to a lack of willingness to increase wages.

    Exactly, and they won’t even do that: they’ll just pay for whatever paperwork is required to bring the Romanians and Bulgarians across from outside the EU, same as they did before 2004/7 or whenever it was.

  4. I remember before the A10 group joined the EU in 2004; the fruit and veg was left to rot in the field and the country starved.

    Heh!

  5. There’s a chap growing tea in Cornwall. I wonder what he does for pickers?

    P.S. I remember little from before the age of eleven or so but I can remember Onion Johnnies. Now that was a veg phenomenon.

  6. This is quite topical here in the land of Oz.
    There’s similar issues – and similar clueless reporting.

    Boyo boy, was the law ever changed after the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster.
    This brought in the Gangmasters Law (called something like that), and was policed by the Gangmasters Licencing Authority – now called the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. (now THERE’s a name)

    I don’t know all that much about it, but some biddy has decided all of the “exploitation” issues in the fruit & vege picking game will be solved by blanket adoption in Oz of the UK Gangmasters laws. (Just change the name at the top & copy over the rest, apparently).

    There’s about 5 blog posts possible from this topic, I’ve actually written a couple of them but not got around to publishing (coz “work”, coz “tired”, etc)

    A couple of the often forgotten points of the Morecambe Bay disaster:
    1/. The culpable gangmasters who left their labourers to die in Lancashire were of the same ethnicity as those labourers.
    2/. The deceased workers were undocumented illegal immigrants.

    That said, the main debate on pricing of labour is the same: Does the price of field hand labour need to rise to attract labourers? (Market forces)
    Or does the alternative – lazing on a sofa all day whilst drawing benefits – need to come down (artificial govt interference in the labour market to be removed).

    There will be consumer (can’t say “housewife” anymore) resistance to fruit & veges being tripled in price, and either all will be imported and the local growers put out of business, or the local growers be put out of business & the housew…er.. “consumer” does without fresh fruit & veges.

    Why does nobody want to pick? Coz of two 4-letter words: “Hard Work”.

  7. The culpable gangmasters who left their labourers to die in Lancashire were of the same ethnicity as those labourers.

    That was always the case with the gangmasters I used to see, without exception.

  8. Tea is harvested by machine”

    Not in any tea plantation I’ve been on and I’ve been on them in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Uganda and India.

  9. “Not in any tea plantation I’ve been on and I’ve been on them in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Uganda and India.”

    Many things have changed since the days when Samuel Cody’s flying circus came to town & flew through Johnson’s barn.
    Tea harvesting is among those things.

    Quick question: Seen anything done by hand in those countries, that is done by machine in developed countries?

    (Here’s one quick picture for you):
    http://www.postcardteas.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/PostcardTeas_IshikawaMatcha_Special.jpg

  10. Steve in the Pub

    Apart from Japan – and the hobbyist in Cornwall – does anywhere grow tea in significant amounts that isn’t populated by dirt cheap labour?

  11. Are you serious?

    Tea is grown nearly everywhere. The USA grows tonnes of the stuff.
    There’s a quantity grown in Oz (I went to school with the daughters of a tea farmer – hence I’m actually aware of the stuff)

    There is some quite sophisticated tea harvesting equipment.
    I take it you don’t spend you spare time hanging around farm machinery displays, nor your nights reading farming catalogues, nor your holidays visiting the John Deere factory?

    Here’s another one for you:
    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-uup_iS6kBgg/UmRze7ieC6I/AAAAAAAAAeQ/3jtXUBrXyRI/s1600/tea+harvester.JPG

  12. When the media’s having one of its periodic hand-wringing sessions about either ‘low productivity’ or poor real-terms wages in Britain, there never seems to be any open discussion about whether connecting an infinite pool of low-wage labour to the economy might have a depressing effect on both of these metrics.

    Nor am I ever clear why it is axiomatic that requiring some kind of permit for your seasonal staff is going to be an enormous additional paperwork burden. It doesn’t need to be any more than an employer banging a bunch of passport numbers into a web-page somewhere and paying a ‘per worker’ fee on his credit card. They can sort their own health/travel insurance out. The idea that the best solution to streamlining the issuing of a bunch of temporary work permits is to construct the entire EU is completely absurd.

  13. Talk of these tea picking machines reminds me that I was going to add that perhaps this supposed inability to find workers will end up with there being greater investment in automation and therefore higher productivity in the UK. Wonder how much of the “productivity dilemma” is due to badly-documented seasonal work like this?

  14. What we have seen over the past week is the de facto confirmation from the establishment that they have lost control of the inner cities. You can consider the taxpayer provided free flats and money (thats before the charitable donations start being paid out) and amnesties to be a sort of Danegeld. We can only the imagine the sort of chaos that will prevail, if the benefits machine fails to pay out after the next economic crisis.

    The Grenfellites have been and will remain wards of the state till the day they die. If the establishment was fully in control. It could not give a toss about “community cohesion” and would move them around the country to where there was available work and accommodation. That would include seasonal work, like hop picking, which used to be popular with residents past in places like Newham. It may sound harsh but my “white privilege” has been founded on having to upsticks and leave friends and family behind when the work has dried up.

  15. 1. Lower the minimum age for employment
    2. Pay piece work
    3. Ban unpaid internships at Goldman Sachs

    Job done.

  16. “Tea is harvested by machine.” That’s appalling: what about all those poor women in Assam and Ceylon?

  17. @james, June 22, 2017 at 7:37 pm said:
    “1. Lower the minimum age for employment
    2. Pay piece work”

    3. Abolish minimum wage laws.

    4. Change benefit laws so max reduction is 40% of earnings.

  18. It’s remarkable how often people get away with saying there’s a shortage simply because the goods or services cost more than they want to pay. See IT people for decades.

    The fact that yachts cost more than I can afford does not mean there is a shortage of yachts.

  19. “…what about all those poor women in Assam and Ceylon?” They should move to somewhere like Grenfell Towers and never have to work again.

    Wow! I’ve just solved 3rd world poverty. How easy was that?

  20. It’s remarkable how often people get away with saying there’s a shortage simply because the goods or services cost more than they want to pay. See IT people for decades.

    This. Exactly this.

  21. It’s remarkable how often people get away with saying there’s a shortage simply because the goods or services cost more than they want to pay.

    Indeed: see today’s post. Some rent-seeker is quoted in the Guardian is complaining her can’t get labourers because people would rather work in the hospitality industry.

  22. That would include seasonal work, like hop picking, which used to be popular with residents past in places like Newham.

    That used to be true for potato picking in Pembrokeshire, too. It wasn’t only gypsies doing it, a few middle class families used to pitch up too, kids and all.

  23. I lived and worked in Minsk, Belarus from 1994 to 1998. There I met a number of well educated young Belarusian men who travelled to the UK for seasonal work on the land. A number returned with enough money to set up their own businesses. Without exception they were delighted to have been given the opportunity to travel West and retained warm feelings towards the British. Why not more of the same?

  24. Without exception they were delighted to have been given the opportunity to travel West and retained warm feelings towards the British. Why not more of the same?

    My guess is these guys can find better work in the UK than farmwork nowadays, but rather than putting wages up to compete the farm owners find it easier to blame Brexit and call everyone racist.

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