Workers who have been furloughed from their jobs due to the Covid-19 lockdown are being urged to help get the harvest in amid ongoing concerns about a labour shortfall, as Eastern European pickers are unable to get to the UK.
Farmers and agricultural recruiters can now advertise their vacancies on the government’s recently-launched Pick for Britain website – which brings the locations and details of jobs and recruiters into one place – as well as the Find A Job website.
Giving the daily coronavirus briefing on Sunday (26th April), Defra secretary George Eustice said the government is “acutely aware” that we’re about to start the British season in fresh produce.
“We estimate that probably only about a third of migrant labour that would normally come to the UK is here, and was probably here before lockdown,” he said. “We are working with the industry to identify an approach that would encourage millions of furloughed workers to consider taking a second job helping get the harvest in in June.
“It’s not an issue at the moment as the harvest has barely begun but we do anticipate that there will be a need to help recruit staff for those sectors in the month of June.”
Labour shortage concerns
The government has confirmed that those who have been furloughed and are contractually allowed to work for another employer can take on seasonal work and still be paid 80 per cent of their salary under the furlough scheme.
From June onwards, thousands of jobs will need filling as we reach peak strawberry and salad season, as well as other major fruit and vegetable harvests in the country.
There have been significant concerns among growers about sourcing skilled workers in sufficient numbers – the Country Land and Business Association recently estimated that 80,000 people will be needed to ensure fruits and vegetables are picked on time this summer.
Earlier in the month, skilled workers were flown to the UK from Romania to pick fruit on various farms which hadn’t been able to recruit skilled workers in the UK.
NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: “As the peak summer harvest approaches, we have been working closely with Defra to ensure a solution is in place for businesses to recruit domestic workers this summer.
“A dedicated website has been created by the government, and farm businesses and recruiters looking for staff are currently posting these vacancies on the site. We are expecting further news from the government this week on a drive to recruit people who want to help British farms.”
Will it be enough?
Mr Bradshaw said the response from the British public has been “fantastic”, while their support is “incredibly valued”. However, despite a large uptake in terms of applications, there are concerns that only a small percentage of these are culminating in employment, with the Guardian reporting that the Feed the Nation initiative has received nearly 50,000 applications but just over 6,000 opted to complete a job interview, while 900 rejected the job and 112 have accepted.
Speaking to the Guardian Mr Bradshaw said: “You can see that turning interest into actual applicants is pretty challenging, that’s why we are going to need to get tens of thousands of people interested in the work.
“I think we’re nervous,” he added. “But we’ve never been in this situation where we have the number of people available that we have now. There could be two million unemployed now and we’ve also got all of the university students who would maybe travel through the summer and now won’t be. So there is a large pool of people available who haven’t been previously.”
Picking vacancies for April have been filled, which gives “some confidence” that we may be able to fill the roles, he added.