Written evidence submitted by Riviera Produce Ltd (LS0012)
DEFRA Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Submission of Evidence re Labour Shortages in the food and farming sector
To whom it may concern 11th October 2021
Riviera Produce grow over 7,500 acres of produce in Cornwall, supplying the major supermarkets with fresh produce nationwide every day of the year. We specialize in cauliflowers, broccoli, cabbages, and courgettes employing over 500 people in the peak times. We also have another 6 growers in Cornwall supplying us with 1,500 acres of brassicas which we market for them to the supermarkets. They employ an additional 100 people.
Labour availability at the right time, in the right numbers is key for our industry, without the correct amount of labour, crops are not planted or harvested on time. At certain points of the year, we only have 24 hours to harvest the crops otherwise crops have to be left to rot in the fields. As these crops are grown in the fields, they are reliant on the weather conditions at that time, in warm weather crops grow very quickly and need harvesting asap, in cold weather crops grow slowly and need harvesting less frequently. The UK is too cold and wet to grow broccoli and courgettes in the winter so these crops are just grown in the summer months, all the planting takes place in the summer months. This makes our labour requirement fluctuate wildly during the year and from day to day, this makes it impossible to offer full time work 12 months of the year to any potential staff.
We try and employ local people as much as possible, office staff, supervisors, lorry drivers and some tractor drivers are local, as we offer full time permanent roles. However, harvesting and planting roles are very difficult to fill with local people and we have to rely on migrant labour due to the reasons above. In May 2020 we advertised in all the local colleges, universities, on line, and social media job sites for harvest workers. We had over 250 applicants, we called every one of them and explained the job and what it entailed. 37 people came for their induction and started work. After 7 weeks only 1 person remained as all the others found it too difficult due to early starts, working in all weathers, unsure of the hours, having to work some weekends, etc, even though they can earn £20-30 an hour!!! This year we undertook the same exercise and had 2 applicants, one from Romania and one local girl who ended up going elsewhere. As a proud Cornishman, I am sorry to say, that local people do not want to work in the fields any more.
Automation in harvesting is still a long way away, I have been involved in research projects for over 20 years and nothing is anywhere near to harvesting cauliflower and the like. There are 100’s of different horticultural crops grown in the UK, they all need different types of equipment to harvest their crops. This will take considerable investment and time to bring to market. As the potential market for these products is relatively small it will take time before our sector is automated, hopefully future grants to be awarded will stimulate this sector.
Over the last 10 – 15 years we have been using Romania and Bulgarian nationals to carry out this seasonal work. This summer has been a nightmare with over 50% of those employed at the start of the period leaving us due to various reasons. Issues at the border in March/April getting in, even though they had the correct paperwork, Covid fears in the UK, better job opportunities in other parts of the EU and back home in their own countries, are some of the issues. This has left us short of staff throughout the summer, each day we have to prioritize which workload we put the staff numbers we have available to do. This has meant we have left over £500,000 of produce to rot in the fields as we have not had enough staff to care for and harvest these crops.
We started to use the Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme 2 years ago, however with Covid last year it was difficult to use and get numbers of staff when we wanted them. This year we started off ordering 120 people from Pro Force Limited. This worked well with most of the people coming from Ukraine and Russia. However, as we realized that Bulgarian/Romanian staff were leaving and not returning we tried to get more from Proforce but they didn’t have any available as all their visas were used up. We approached Fruitfuljobs, another of the 4 providers, and as they did not get permission to operate until very late, they still had visas available. We have taken 142 people from them, mostly from Russia and Kazakhstan. All the seasonal workers are fantastic people, motivated, hardworking and wanting to be in the UK, where they can earn more in a day with us than they earn in a month back home. They are educated people including accountants and doctors and really appreciate what we are offering them. However, for next year I am being told by Proforce that they are massively oversubscribed on employers wanting Seasonal Workers compared to the number of Visas available to them this year. The number of visas needs to be expanded asap to cover this potential shortfall.
I cannot emphasis enough how important the making of the Seasonal Workers Scheme permanent is for the horticultural industry in the UK. Without this scheme the horticultural industry in the UK is finished, it is that serious. We are now sowing seeds for crops to be planted for next summer, so we need to know what is happening to the scheme urgently. If we do not have the Scheme we will stop planting and have to close our business putting many local people out of work. All other brassica and courgette growers in the UK will have to do the same. Now should be the time we are promoting our fantastic, healthy British vegetables, please take this seriously and act NOW.