AUTHOR: GIAN VOLPICELLI
Robots won’t save the UK’s farms from a migrant labour shortage. Ahead of this year’s growing season, many farmers are worried they won’t have enough people to pick their crops
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.