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Let Us Pick Fruit!

My partner Mandy and I both love the countryside and both of us would much rather be outdoors than indoors.

After reading shocking reports in the press that, “All across the UK, fruit and vegetables are going to rot in fields”, we decided we wanted to do our bit, getting our produce out of the fields, and onto the tables of the nation.

And in the light of the huge projected shortfall in fruit and vegetable pickers over the coming months that we had read so much about, we would surely be quickly snapped up by a local farmer, or so we thought. How wrong we were.

THE APPLICATION PROCESS

We began by telephoning a number of local farms, but with no success. We were often simply told that the “season hadn’t really started yet”. We told them we were well aware of this, we just wanted our contact details to be recorded for when it did.

One or two said, “yes”, that they would pass our details on the appropriate person.

More than a month has now passed. No one has got back to us.

Nothing daunted, we decided to sign up on a seasonal work website. We were duly invited to undertake an online video interview, which we did, and soon afterwards received emails informing us that we had been accepted.

The emails stated that we would soon be “matched to a farm based on your preferences and answers”.

Things were looking up. Maybe.

Our interviews had involved answering a wide range of questions, we responded to all of them as honestly as we could.

At one point we were both asked if we would be willing to live on site. We both replied “No”, but that we were however, fully prepared to travel reasonable distances, anything up to an hour or so by car.

Living where we do, with very easy access to the M5, this would encompass most of the Vale of Evesham, where a large number of fruit and vegetable farms are located.

Our interviews took place in the first week of March. It’s now May.

Throughout the whole of March, we received just one email, detailing a potential placement on a farm ‘somewhere in Herefordshire’.

Herefordshire is at least an hour and a half drive away, possibly two hours, depending on the exact location (not revealed in the email we received for some reason, which was slightly bizarre in itself).

THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS

The email went on to state that the farm would very much prefer workers to live on site in the farms caravans, and that accordingly, £57.40 would be deducted from wages, per person, per week. And based on the fact that it also specified that all workers would be required to “bring their own sleeping bag and pillow”, we guessed the accommodation might possibly be a little on the basic side.

However since no photos of the caravans were provided, in fact, the whole identity of the farm in question was obscured, it was impossible to make a valid judgement on this.

Also included in the email text was a strong warning that under no circumstances would we be allowed to take a car onto the site If we needed to go to the local shops — fairly likely, as it was made clear that “you will need to buy your own food” — we would have to walk best part of a couple of miles to get to them, or call a taxi.

Electricity, the email went on to say, would be metered and not included in the £57.40 fee; we would have to buy top up cards to cover this.

If we applied and were accepted, it would be important to bring “enough money to support ourselves” in the first two weeks, it was advised this should be between £150 and £200 per person.

Exactly what we might spend £100 per week on was not made clear when we would have no car and would effectively be trapped in a caravan in a field. Would we be expected to spend £100 a week on food and drink? The situation became more and more curious, and these questions were left unanswered.

SOCIAL DISTANCING?

But the most worrying aspect given the current situation was the more than apparent lack of social distancing. The caravans on the farm site house four to six people — so assuming we could be allocated to the same caravan — Mandy and I would be expected to share with somewhere between two and four strangers.

One would imagine our fellow caravan-mates might very possibly have recently arrived from another country, without having been tested for Covid-19.

To be fair, the email text included a note that before entering their caravan accommodation “everyone will be expected to self isolate for two weeks”. It is very unlikely, however, that many arriving from abroad to do this work would have stayed in other accommodation for 14 days before arriving at the farms. To do so would be expensive and many hotels are currently closed.

Living with strangers in a very confined space, with hardly any facilities, is a ‘big ask’ at any time of life, but during a pandemic it’s downright dangerous. When all sorts of businesses have made sacrifices and taken measures to ensure social distancing during this time, why should farms be any different?

ADVERTISEMENT OR DETERRENT?

Right from the very start of the application process, and pretty much throughout, the website seemed to be trying hard to deter potential British applicants from proceeding, going into great detail about how hard the work can be, the low wages, the long hours, the early starts. Is this usually how jobs are advertised? Can you think of any other situation where an employer would advertise a job by telling the applicant how bad it is?

Add to this the fact that some are told they will need to train for 2-3 weeks for the job. As backbreaking as the work can be, picking asparagus or other produce is hardly rocket-science, and could probably be dealt with in a single afternoon induction session.

DO WE REALLY NEED TO IMPORT WORKERS FROM ABROAD AT THE MOMENT?

The number of people becoming unemployed in the UK is rising rapidly, and set to rise still further as the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on the UK and nations all around the globe.

Anyone ‘furloughed’ can now take up farm work, there are huge numbers of students who are unlikely to return to college until September. Many would be only too happy of the work. And many would be desperate for any work at all. There should be no need to fly in any workers from abroad. Absolutely none.

And there wouldn’t be any need, if fruit and veg farmers were prepared to accommodate potential workers living locally.

To be fair, reading some more recent articles in the Press, some farms do seem to be doing this. But others seem determined to continue with attempting to acquire an almost prison-style workforce.

Demand for pickers at this time of year, early May, is still fairly low and many farmers probably have sufficient foreign national workers, who have either stayed over from the end of last season, or already flown in from Eastern Europe.

However what’s puzzling is that in a few weeks’ time peak season will come around. Given foreign non-essential travel is still very much frowned upon, one might expect that our farmers would be very keen to sign up potential local UK resident workers, in order to meet the seemingly inevitable labour shortage that lies ahead.

Instead many appear to be continuing to simply reject or ignore applications from locals, and putting out all kinds of excuses to the Press as to why they don’t want Brits to do their picking.

Understandably, many have grown to rather like having their seasonal workers pretty much trapped in caravans in a nearby field, being charged £57.40 per person per week, between four and six per cabin, with no access to vehicles, waiting to be instructed where and when to work next, and not even having to provide them with basics like food, or bedding.

I have a strong suspicion that when peak season comes around, the farmers who are currently refusing to adapt/change the way that they have been working in previous years, relying almost entirely on foreign workers will lobby the government extremely hard to allow thousands of them into the UK.

They will moan about the ‘lazy Brits’ that have not been willing to accept seasonal worker contracts, whilst at the same time omitting to mention the above, somewhat restrictive terms and conditions that they have attached to them.

And they will again raise the prospect of having crops rot in the fields all over the UK, unless many thousands of predominantly Eastern Europeans workers are not flown in to the UK immediately.

THE NEW NORMAL

In the past Mandy and I have always fully supported our farmers and their management of the UK countryside at every level, and of course we still do. However we now believe there needs to be a ’root and branch’ re-think of how we use the land, and how we can reconnect communities and their food.

Some farmers already have changed, many more need to do so. We hear a lot about ‘new normals’ currently, we need ‘a new normal’ with regard to fruit and vegetable picking in the UK.

This re-think needs to include finding ways for our fruit and vegetable farmers to employ and retain local British workers. If this means paying them a little more, not effectively trying to force them to live in basic caravans with up to five strangers, signing up for six month long contracts, living as virtual prisoners on their site, without even having any access to their cars, then so be it.

But let’s hear no more about ‘Brits are too lazy to work a field’. It’s simply not true.

Covid-19 has turned our lives upside down, caused sickness and death up and down the UK, but it has also taught us many valuable lessons.

One of these is that having supply chains which span the world leaves us in an extremely vulnerable position. Instead, we must become as self sufficient as we can, and in every way that we possibly can.

‘Feeding ourselves’ is a very obvious priority here. Of course it won’t be possible to make all the huge changes needed overnight. But make huge changes we absolutely must.

Pete Durnell is the former Brexit Party Deputy Campaign Manager for the West Midlands Region. His partner Mandy Childs is the former Brexit Party Prospective Party Candidate for the constituency of Bromsgrove.