A major East Anglian salad and vegetable grower said a “legendary” response from British workers to fill gaps in its harvest team could herald a “culture change” for the industry’s future careers appeal.
Group HR director Beverly Dixon said the company now has 260 British recruits working in the fields from “all kinds of backgrounds”, including chefs, musicians and teachers.
G’s Group, based at Barway near Ely, was one of the food firms which joined the national Pick for Britain campaign calling for students, furloughed workers and those who may have lost work in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors to step in and fill fruit and vegetable picking jobs after the lockdown restrictions prevented many of the usual eastern European workforce from travelling.
“That is legendary,” she said. “We have not had British people working here for 20-odd years.
“It is a whole culture change. A lot of them are people who would not have known anyone who has worked manually before, so the whole thing is a new context and we have put a lot additional training and management in place to support them and make it work.
“I think over time, as we get back to the ‘new normal’, there will be fewer of them. For the students, when the pubs re-open they will be working behind a bar. However, there will still be people interested and even if they don’t come back they will tell a story to their friends. We have got a whole new perception about food production and I think some of them may go into other food jobs – not necessarily picking, but they could become irrigation experts, agronomists, crop specialists and farm managers.”
The 260 British passport-holders are among the 400 UK residents who make up 30pc of the firm’s workforce. The other 70pc are the firm’s traditional EU seasonal workers, mainly from Romania. Ms Dixon said most of those people arrived before the lockdown – although G’s did charter a plane to fly in experienced Romanian specialists to help train the new British recruits.
“Just now, out in the field we have got enough people,” she said. “It is really important that we do have some returners from eastern Europe, because they are so well trained and their productivity is much higher. People will ask why are we still employing people from Romania? It is because they are skilled and experienced and we need them to keep the whole thing running.
“With the UK people we will have a higher turnover as people go back to their jobs, and we are OK with that, but we need to support them in their productivity to get them up to speed. It is like someone from Sunday league football joining Manchester United. That is how good the Romanians are. At the moment they are the ones who are skilled and experienced and more productive. We need some of those people every year.”
Earlier this month, environment secretary George Eustice said only “around a third” of migrant workers normally expected for the summer harvest are currently in the country. Ms Dixon, who is also a member of the national Agriculture and Horticulture Skills Leadership Group, hopes the response at G’s could be a positive indicator for the fruit and berry growers whose peak picking season is about to start.