Pick for Britain campaign fails to bear fruit

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The Pick for Britain campaign aimed at recruiting UK-based workers for seasonal farm roles has been scrapped by the government.

The campaign was intended to fill crop picking roles left vacant by foreign workers’ transportation difficulties as the Covid pandemic struck Europe. It consisted of advertising and a website hosted by Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which directed UK workers to roles.

Instead of Pick for Britain, domestic workers will now be recruited by farms with the help of the Department of Work and Pensions, which has said it will help identify candidates who have the right skills and attributes for the roles.

It is also thought that the government will instead look to boost the number of temporary agricultural workers by pursuing its Seasonal Worker Scheme, which aims to allow access to 30,000 non-UK workers to undertake essential seasonal horticultural work.

However, there are concerns in the farming sector that this would not provide enough people even if Covid travel restrictions ease in the coming months. It is thought that up to 70,000 seasonal workers could be needed. There are also concerns that workers are facing barriers getting to the UK due to confusion between EU and UK border agencies.

Although Pick for Britain attracted a lot of interest – with tens of thousands of British people applying for thousands of roles during the first national lockdown – and received backing from the likes of Waitrose, relatively small numbers of recruits made it onto farms with estimates suggesting UK-born workers made up only between 5% and 11% of the 70,000 picking and packing roles required across the 2020 season. Nine in 10 seasonal agricultural workers were from the EU a study found.

The campaign’s demise marks a u-turn from the government’s previous position. Defra had said it planned to work with the industry to build on last year’s campaign when it expanded the Seasonal Agricultural Workers pilot to 30,000 permits in December.

Industry body the British Growers Association said there was “a real concern” over whether the UK would have the staff it needed come the peak of the season.

“June/July will be the test period when you’ve got the salads, soft fruit and brassica industries all flat out. They’ll need a total of 40,000 to 45,000 workers for that peak period,” said BGA CEO Jack Ward.

He added: “In addition to the 30,000 [SAWS permits] there are those with settled and pre-settled status. But you’ve got the complication of whether people will turn up [due to Covid-19 in Europe]. There’s no room for complacency and I suspect it’ll be another challenging and difficult season.”

NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw, said businesses should advertise their vacancies and engage with the DWP. “Like other developed countries around the world, the UK horticulture sector has been reliant on overseas workers for decades,” he said.

Pick for Britain’s homepage today states: “Defra would like to extend its sincere gratitude to all campaign partners who supported this project. With your help, the Pick for Britain message generated unprecedented interest in these roles across the country, and helped our farmers and growers bring home the harvest.”

Among the earliest crops to be picked is asparagus, for which workers are needed from mid-May until mid-June.

One advert for workers from one asparagus farm seen by Personnel Today stated: “Hours are depending on daily harvest but often start at 7:30am, 6 days per week. Due to the nature of the harvest, flexibility regarding hours is needed. Your pay depends on the weight of graded asparagus that your team picks (piece rate payment terms) and is in accordance with the national minimum wage legislation. Good pickers can earn £550/week, depending on the density of the crop and the weather.”

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