Thursday, September 14, 2017

Worker shortages draw media attention

The problems that Brexit has caused for labour intensive sections of agriculture have received considerable treatment in the media. The latest analysis in the Financial Times looks at Barfoots of Botley whose biggest crop is sweetcorn: Worker shortage

Barfoots operate along a strip of the south coast in West Sussex where there are many big horticultural firms. I have visited a number in the Littlehampton area. The area has a particularly favourable climate due to the shelter provided by the Isle of Wight.

Picking sweetcorn is a hard grind. It is repetitive and physical and must be done quickly if the product is to be on the shelf in optimum condition. Workers do 12-hour shifts on a range of tasks from picking to processing.

This year's headcount at Barfoots has been running about 15 per cent short, representing 50 to 60 workers. I would think that the biggest factor is the post-referendum fall in the value of sterling, combined with better opportunities in countries such as Poland. Seasonal workers also say they no longer feel welcome in the UK.

Another Brexit-related concern is, that like many horticultural concerns, Barfoots only produce in the UK from May to September. Production then shifts briefly to Germany, then to Spain and onwards to Morocco and Senegal. Post-Brexit import duties could play havoc with this arrangement.

What are the answers? Some would say pay more, but most workers earn between £8 to £10 an hour and there have been improvements in accommodation. Some growers offer English language lessons.

In the short run Barfoots are going to cut out labour intensive crops such as broad beans which offer small profit margins (although they are a useful part of a rotation).

Many see the answer in new technology, and I will consider this further in a later post, although it is not easily applicable to many labour intensive crops.

Seasonal workers will still be needed for many years to come and post Brexit there needs to be an arrangement for temporary work permits on the lines of the old SAWS scheme. Opinion poll data suggests that nearly two-thirds of voters would be prepared to support such a scheme.

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