From Rotting Crops to Migrant Worker Shortages, Times are Hard Down On the Farm That Brexit Built

April 3, 2018

These days, the headquarters of G’s Fresh — a large farming complex on the outskirts of Ely, East Cambridgeshire — is oddly quiet. In the office building, administrative staff work in open-plan spaces and walk through bluish-carpeted corridors, rubbing elbows with the occasional truck driver just in from Spain with a fresh load of broccoli or tomatoes. Internal windows show unloading bays dominated by towers of crates filled with supermarket-ready salad bags. The nearby residential building, which can accommodate hundreds of vegetable pickers during harvesting season, is almost empty. Only a few people helping with planting operations dawdle around between shifts. In a couple of months things will look very different. Hopefully.

All around is a green expanse of celery and lettuce fields. Right now, the fields are empty. But in June – G’s Joshua Pugh Ginn tells me as we walk through the building – they will be where all the action happens. There will be harvesting rigs – wheeled, tarpaulin-covered moving storehouses equipped with conveyor belts – trogging across the land, like oliphaunts constantly fed by teams of workers laying neatly cut vegetables on the conveyor belts. “People would be inside the rigs, under the tarpaulin roof, or walking in front, and on the sides,” Pugh Ginn says. If you were there on the field, you probably wouldn’t hear much English being spoken: the near totality of G’s seasonal workers, the ones taking care of the harvesting, are from Eastern European countries, with Romanians and Bulgarians making up the biggest cohorts. That is not an isolated case: according to the National Farmers’ Union, less than one per cent of seasonal workers in British farms are UK-born – a drop in the ocean of workers from Romania, Bulgaria and the so-called EU8 countries.

But there is a problem, Pugh Ginn – a young Cambridge-educated history PhD who takes care of Brexit-related matters for G’s – tells me. Following the 2016 referendum, and the government’s decision that freedom of movement from the EU will stop at the end of 2020, Eastern European migrant workers have already started shunning the UK. For the harvest, G’s needs around 2,000 workers, 600 of them in Cambridgeshire alone. The company is currently grappling with a gnawing question: come June, will the fields crawl with people deftly cutting heads of iceberg and romaine, or will the company find itself in the unenviable position of not having enough pickers? More importantly, when the UK leaves the EU for good, how will farmers across the country have their fruits and vegetables picked?

Labour shortages in agriculture are not a recent problem – nor a specifically British one: farmers from Canada, to Australia, to California, have been complaining for years about recruitment pains. In wealthy countries, less and less locals are willing to toil in the field on seasonal contracts: G’s attempts to recruit seasonal workers from the UK’s most high-unemployment areas have proved routinely unsuccessful.

Problem is: as the global economy grew more prosperous, people in countries that were previously a reliable reservoir of seasonal workers are also becoming less keen on embarking on short-term fruit-picking expeditions to richer countries. “The problem with labour started before the referendum,” says Sharon Cross, who, as G’s ethical working director, is in charge of recruiting seasonal workers. “The labour supply was getting shorter, as unemployment levels in Eastern Europe, and in the UK, had been going down and down and down.” That was particularly marked in Bulgaria – where unemployment levels have dropped from 12.3 per cent in 2012 to 6.2 per cent today. In the same period, joblessness in Romania dropped from seven per cent to five per cent. “We saw this coming,” says Alison Capper, the chairman of National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) horticulture and potatoes board, and a grower of apples and hop in Stocks Farm, Worcestershire. “But Brexit has exacerbated it.”

On June 24, 2016, when it had become clear that the country had voted to leave the EU, Cross walked to G’s hostel – a 400-people residential structure right next to the firm’s main office – pondering the situation. “I was thinking: ‘Flip, what does this mean? What on Earth does it mean?’” It was harvesting season: workers coming back after eight hours of veggie-picking still had the energy to pump iron in the structure’s gym, or to play ping-pong in the common room, or tennis and basketball on nearby pitches. Others were cooking their meals in a massive brushed aluminium kitchen (G’s used to have a canteen, but it was shut down as it struggled to cater to the workers’ variegated gastronomical tastes.) Others went to rest in their six-bed rooms. Initially, Cross says, nothing happened: workers had not yet zeroed in on Brexit’s possible repercussions on their lives. “After a couple of days, with conversations, and stuff in the press, more and more people came forward with more and more questions about what was going to happen,” Cross says. “And that was really difficult because nobody knew.”

The first problem was the pound’s freefall compared to the Euro, which took a toll on workers’ savings practically overnight. “Some guys here said that from when they arrived in May to when they left in October the value of their earnings had dropped by a third because of the exchange rate going down,” Cross says. (In 2017, G’s raised wages from £7.50 to £8 per hour.) Some decamped: according to NFU’s statistics, 42.9 per cent of the seasonal workers left earlier in July 2016, compared to 14 per cent the previous month. Seasonal workers usually go fruit-picking for two to three summers in a row, putting aside the money and coming back the following year, until they reach a certain goal – they might want to earn enough money to buy a house, or fund their university studies back in Romania. But amidst a weakening pound, perceived anti-immigrant hostility, and a lot of uncertainty regarding whether they will be able to come back working in the UK over the next years, some of them resolved to build relationships with growers in places that are not in the throes of hazy divorce with the world’s largest trading bloc. Put simply, people now prefer veggie-picking in Germany.

Since the referendum, G’s has needed to work thrice as hard – with an intense campaign of recruitment drives in Eastern Europe’s high-unemployment areas – to get a lower number of seasonal workers than it did pre-2016. Returnee workers, which in 2015 made up 72 per cent of the company’s seasonal workforce, accounted for 42 per cent of the whole in 2017. In 2015, Cross says, there was a waiting list of 750 people who wanted to come to work at G’s over summer; in 2017, there was no waiting list. Even if Cross thinks they might have managed to recruit enough workers for this year’s harvest, she will have to wait until May to see whether that is true.

“Last year we had a higher no-show rate than we’d ever had before,” she says. “We expect the same impact this year but we’re preparing for it and we got a little bit of extra people.” But as hard, no-free-movement Brexit gets closer every day, Cross is bracing for reckoning. “We will start our recruitment for 2019 in July. I am hoping that between now and then we’ll have some clarity about what’s gonna happen in terms of hiring foreign seasonal workers,” she says. “We can’t say ‘Everything will be okay, you’ll be able to come back’, because we don’t know.”

Many in the farming sector pine for the good old days of Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) – a system that, from 1948 to 2013, allowed growers to recruit migrant seasonal workers for up to six months. It was binned in 2013, on the grounds that UK growers could simply access EU labour. Stocks Farm’s Alison Capper says that, with the UK’s farming industry needing some 80,000 seasonal workers every year, a SAWS-like scheme would be of crucial importance to stave off a Brexit-triggered crisis. Otherwise, she says, crops will rot unpicked in the fields.