The Times headline ‘Broccoli pickers paid £30 an hour as Britain runs short of vegetables’ highlights the plight that farmers faced last year when it came to recruiting workers to help with the harvest season in the wake of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. While it makes for an eye-catching headline, the UK remains in the midst of the worst labour crisis since the late 1990s. Across nearly every sector, businesses are struggling to fill the gap left by the lack of overseas workers, after an estimated 94,000 more EU nationals left the UK in 2020. And while the UK government strives to offer temporary solutions, these won’t rectify the situation long term. With the National Farmers Union predicting 55,000 seasonal workers needed this year, and the government’s Seasonal Workers Pilot only allocating 40,000 six-month visas at the most, farmers in 2022 will likely experience significant labour shortfalls in much the same way as we saw last year. More telling is that, even when additional visas are offered, uptake seems slow. For example, out of the 800 temporary visas made available for overseas butchers to work in the UK (helping to end the practice of culling tens of thousands of healthy animals), only 100 workers applied to the scheme. Although Defra believes that making ‘employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, career options and wage increases’ could offer a solution, the reality is that the UK is reliant on an overseas workforce to support our economy. And a recent NFU Scotland survey supports this: out of 100 employment contracts offered to UK workers on farms, only six were accepted and just three people turned up to work. The survey also found the retention rate between EU workers and UK workers differs massively: 80% compared to 32% respectively. Recruiters are now faced with the difficult challenge of encouraging more overseas workers to come to the UK to fill crucial roles. But it’s not simply a case of offering them a new job – offer support packages that help drive retention and ensure they have the best start to life in the UK.
Duty of care to workers
Recruiters have a responsibility to give their candidates an honest portrayal of what life in the UK is like. Learning a new language, experiencing a different culture, even Britain’s temperamental weather conditions can come as a surprise – particularly for those working outside in the agriculture and horticulture sectors. Financial exclusion is a growing issue for overseas workers who find themselves unable to open a high street bank account, since banking regulations require a permanent UK address, proof of ID and often a minimum of three months of utility bills. The knock-on effect can mean accommodation cannot be secured and wages cannot be paid. Workers are left vulnerable to illegal working practices run by gangmasters, just to ensure they have cash to pay for food and a roof over their head. Recruiters must therefore educate and offer guidance on how to open a bank account or secure somewhere to live, ideally before their candidate arrives in the UK. In regard to labour exploitation, recruiters should carry out due diligence when it comes to their labour supply chain, with regular audits of working environments and pay grades, and an understanding of the next steps if they believe there is suspicious activity. By recruiting ethically, supporting and educating candidates about their new life in the UK and offering them a safe environment to work in, recruiters can help to fix the long-term issues posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit.