Written Evidence submitted by Boxford Suffolk Farms Ltd (LS0024)
Introduction to our organisation
We are Boxford (Suffolk) Farms and Peake Fruit; (a storage, packing and marketing company), located on the Essex/Suffolk border – a third-generation family-owned businesses - employing 170 permanent staff, producing over 5,000 tonnes of apples, cherries and soft fruit from 150 ha.
We wish to submit evidence to convince Government to make the SWP scheme permanent and expand the permitted visas to 80,000.
It has been a challenging year for worker recruitment in the edible agricultural and horticultural sector for both filling seasonal positions and for finding skilled permanent staff.
As a fruit farm that normally recruits around 400+ seasonal workers each year, with a peak of around 250 workers, we have only been able to recruit around 300 seasonal workers so far this year, and with no more applicants or SWP Visa orders in the pipeline and our recruitment season nearing an end, we will finish the year with a shortfall of about 100 seasonal workers. With regard to crop wastage, we have had to waste approx. 44 Tonnes of fruit this year due to labour shortages.
Factors driving labour shortage
This shortfall has not occurred because we have less production, on the contrary, we are an expanding business with year-on-year increased top fruit and soft fruit production meaning our demand for seasonal labour is greater than ever. Thus, we have found ourselves with periods in the year having labour shortages of up to 21%, which has had knock on effects on crop wastage, jobs completion, timing, and business costs.
Some of the labour shortages we saw early in the season were caused by invited and confirmed returning workers (with Pre-Settled/Settled Status) who let us down at short notice. We had over 50 not arrive in the space of a few weeks at the beginning of June. We anticipate that for next year, this non-show of returnees will be even worse.
The driving factors causing this being; COVID 19- the travel restrictions and impact on personal lives have made a lot of people re-orient their lives around their families, most of which reside abroad; BREXIT Border Controls - the scares and troubles workers have had crossing the border have made other European Countries (France, Germany, Denmark etc.) even more appealing and easier to travel to - with the exchange rate of Sterling against the Euro not a strong enough incentive for some; and offers of employment outside of the industry which are more appealing. This means that for all those workers from the EU with residency under the Settlement Scheme, farms are now competing with packhouses, factories, retail and the likes of Starbucks, and Amazon who can provide a different type or work in a more comfortable work environment for similar financial incentives.
That’s not to say that the pay rates on farms are the cause of the shortages because they are more than competitive. We have seasonal workers consistently earning between £12 and £15 per hour on performance related piecework pay schemes, but the type of work is a physical job in outside conditions which are often less than appealing; hot or cold, wet, dusty or muddy etc.
In the space of these few weeks at the beginning of June we found ourselves becoming heavily reliant on the new Seasonal Worker Pilot (SWP) Visa scheme to fill the gaps that were being created by the sudden unreliability of direct recruitment. During this season we have had 3 times as many of these workers placed with us than what we had planned for, compared with the initial orders we placed at the beginning of the season.
Outlook in coming months and years
We expect the labour shortage to continue for at least the next few years, so in order to try and secure a seasonal labour force to get the crop picked next year (and years to come) we have already placed significantly increased orders (up by 77%) with operating agencies of the SWP scheme for next year.
For our production and growth plans for our business, it is therefore vital that this scheme is extended, expanded and made permanent, as we see it as the most viable source of seasonal labour for the foreseeable future. It is clear to us that EU workers with UK residency will continue to diminish significantly as a labour source, and it is not a realistic expectation to fulfil significant numbers of seasonal positions with recruitment from UK local sources only.
To give an indication, last year due to the pandemic we had record numbers of local people apply for seasonal work with over 200 applicants from March to May 2020. We contacted over 150 individuals to have around 25 of the 150 accept the work offer and come for the work induction, to then have only 15 individuals actually start work with us in June 2020 - that’s 10%, which is not feasible long term. This year with the transition of businesses re-opening from lockdown, we have had less than 10 local individuals apply, all of which have been offered employment by us and only one who actually arrived to start work with us.
As a business, we have and will continue to invest in our infrastructure to improve working conditions, accommodation etc. to increase worker attraction and retention. We have always tried to manage the workforce so that everybody employed has good working hours and the opportunity to earn more than the minimum wage. We foresee that a rising minimum wage will only cause wage inflation and not help to resolve the industry’s labour supply situation.
We have also been short of permanent skilled workers in both our Farms (agro chemical spray operators) and Packhouse business’s (Managers, Forklift Drivers, QA’s and Supervisors) and there is a great need to add these workers to the Shortage Occupation List so that they can be recruited from outside the UK as we have been unable to fill these positions from UK workers.
Further Steps required by Government
We cannot emphasise strongly enough how vital the SWP scheme has been to our business this year. Without the workers supplied to us through the scheme, we would have been facing 50-60% labour shortage this year throughout the whole season. Our harvesting season runs from March to November, so, it is absolutely critical for the Government to extend and expand the SWP scheme from 30,000 to 80,000 visas and to remove the stipulation of no return for 6 months - to ensure that the industry has access to an uninterrupted, appropriate labour force, and for this to be done promptly to ensure that the Operators have time to be organised and there are no labour supply delays at the beginning of next year. Ideally a 9-month visa would be best for our long-season business.
These seasonal workers will not only prevent shortages in the food supply chain but will also support all the permanent jobs in our businesses as well as enable growth and sustainability for the future.
Finally, increased funding into R&D for robotics and automation would be helpful, as although the industry has many forms of mechanisation, it is still a long way off from a viable, commercial replacement for a fruit picker.
Other issues affecting the Food Supply Chain
The shortage of HGV drivers has also affected our business in that:
The shortage of HGV drivers needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We understand that temporary visas have been issued for foreign HGV drivers but that is only for a few months and will not alleviate the situation in the longer term.