The fruitless saga of the UK’s ‘Pick for Britain’ scheme

On a mild day in May, in the manicured gardens of his Scottish home, Birkhall, Prince Charles broadcast a message to the British public, imploring them to do their part in a national crisis.

Framed by neat hedges and sowed garden beds, the Duke of Cornwall called for a “Land Army” of people to bring in the season’s harvest and deliver food to British tables. Wearing a cream mackintosh and tie, he warned the work would be unglamorous, and at times challenging.

“But it is of the utmost importance at the height of this global pandemic. You will be making a vital contribution to the national effort,” he said.

Unearthing motifs from the second world war of “the great movement – the Land Army”, Britons were urged to pick up their spades and fight food scarcity.

If volunteers had saved domestic food production once before, could they do the same some 75 years later?

Unthinkable, perhaps, in a pre-coronavirus era, but the empty supermarket shelves, cleaned-out by panic buying in the early days of the pandemic, had shaken the national consciousness. Fears that not enough people would come to harvest fruit and vegetables grew as the pandemic worsened.

The National Farming Union (NFU) warned that one-third of produce would go to waste if there were no workers to harvest it. Indeed, a shortfall had already been predicted for agricultural labour, caused by continuing Brexit uncertainty. Last autumn, farmers reported a 30 percent shortage in workers, leaving berries, apples and beans unpicked in fields and orchards.

Hoping to prove that plans to feed the nation – and opportunities for British people to join the “Pick for Britain” drive – were more than just lip service, an industry plan was unveiled in the government’s coronavirus briefing on May 19.

Building on an existing nationwide recruitment drive to “Feed the Nation“, cobbled together hastily in March, George Eustice, secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announced the launch of a new online portal – Pick for Britain – which aimed to match farming work opportunities with enthusiastic British workers.

Backed by the National Farming Union, and agricultural recruitment firms Concordia and HOPS, it seemed a means of plugging labour shortages had been devised.

“Every year large numbers of people come from countries such as Romania or Bulgaria to take part in the harvest, harvesting crops such as strawberries, salads and vegetables,” said Eustace during his announcement.

“We estimate that probably only about a third of the people that would normally come are already here, and small numbers may continue to travel.” He stressed the plan would also accommodate people wanting to take on second jobs, especially those who had been furloughed because of the pandemic.

As the British Chamber of Commerce released statistics showing that 66 percent of private firms had furloughed staff since March, opportunities in farm work became more appealing to many.

‘Pick the sun on your back’

According to Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, the recruitment and work placement charity, pickers can expect to earn an average of 350 pounds (about $460) a week for approximately 40 hours of work. Salaries vary between the national minimum wage of 8.72 pounds ($11.55) an hour to 15 pounds ($19.86) an hour for the fastest pickers.

The days are long, with work starting as early as 5am and finishing in the afternoon, to avoid labouring in the hot sun. Most seasonal workers live in caravans on-site, and a charge of about 50 pounds (about $66) for a person sharing with two other workers is subtracted from their total weekly pay.

Estimates quickly circulated that 70,000 workers were needed to fill labour shortages. Supermarket chain Waitrose & Partners brandished the figure in a television campaign on ITV, publicising the recruitment drive.

Alongside a montage of black-and-white images of pastoral landscapes and rugged but satisfied faces, were the words: “Pick the sun on your back and the dirt under your nails. Pick putting money in your pocket. Pick rising to a challenge. Pick being a key worker. Pick being part of something bigger. Pick for Britain.”

However, moments after Downing Street’s announcement on May 19, the Pick for Britain website crashed. Eager applicants were redirected to a blank page stating “this website is unavailable”.

A government spokesperson explained the glitch occurred due to a significant surge in demand, with visitors increasing from 2,000 to more than 160,000 during the news conference.

Whether for extra income or out of patriotic duty, it seemed Britons were indeed rushing to apply for farm work. Yet many were left frustrated.

‘Cherry picking’ the pickers

That was just the first sign of distress for the scheme.

Jason Lee, 38, was one of the thousands of unemployed people hoping to find work via Pick for Britain.

Every year Lee works for nine months in the Lake District, earning enough money to trade England’s chilly winters for more exotic landscapes.

This year, he had ventured as far as Qatar, New Zealand and Thailand before the pandemic took hold and he was forced to book a flight home.

But in March, with the hospitality industry in shutdown, Lee was unable to resume his usual chef, housekeeping and bartending jobs.

Stuck in the Lake District in northwest England, which relies on more than 15 million tourists a year flocking to its craggy hills and chocolate-box towns, he was in desperate need of an income.

So, when he saw a television recruitment drive for farmworkers, Lee was inspired and threw himself into the application process. He was directed to a website called British Summer Fruits, a hosting site where farmers posted their own advertisements. Responding to each opening, Lee says he “fired out” CVs and cover letters and followed up with phone calls to employers.

“I was all full of steam, ready to go, so I just blitz applied for them all – Southampton, Portsmouth, Wales, the Midlands, Lancashire, Scotland,” he says.

“At the time, I submitted 35 applications. But I didn’t hear anything back – not from a single farm.”

This silence surprised Lee, who insisted he was willing to get his hands dirty.

“I’ve been to 102 countries. I’ve worked in all sorts of trades including construction, farming and labouring work. If there’s work to be done and wages to be earned, then I’ll get stuck in,” he says.

Lee began to wonder if there was a stigma attached to British workers. Many of the forms asked if he spoke Bulgarian or Romanian, causing him to believe foreign workers were being “cherry-picked”.

Running out of money, Lee sent a second batch of CVs out in April, and this time received a few curt rejections. “I was in a Catch-22 – their websites were telling me you don’t need training, but when I was phoning up, they were telling me you do need training. So which is it?”

Lee’s experience was echoed in accounts on social media sites, where farming groups acted as echo-chambers, amplifying grievances about lack of work.

‘We are not work-shy’

Jane Bull, from the coastal town of Poole in Dorset, was another hopeful in the Pick for Britain initiative. A retired baby boomer, her draw to the fields came from a spirit of national duty.

“When I first read about this ‘Land Army’, I really wanted to help my country. There were thousands of people volunteering for the health service. I’m 63 and recovered from cancer in 2009, and though it may be a health risk, I thought I was fit enough. I really wanted to help my country get food on the table,” she says.

“I couldn’t find jobs anywhere – I looked and looked. I finally found an agency for workers, but I didn’t have a CV because I’m retired so I spent ages on the computer getting one together.”

Like Lee, Bull became demoralised by a steady stream of rejections. Recounting her experience, her tone is one of genuine disappointment; she had spent the last 10 years volunteering for charities including Cancer Research and Age UK – public service and helping others is second nature to her, she says.

Eventually, Bull concluded the new Land Army was “a farce” and diverted her energy into sewing PPE (personal protective equipment) for NHS front-line workers battling the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the failure of the Pick for Britain initiative concerned her. She recognised that while a farm job was not a lifeline for her, for others such as her daughter’s boyfriend, it could be a vital source of income. “He’s a self-employed roofer and was in desperate need of work over lockdown. He would have done anything for a job, anything,” she says.

She was even more perplexed that his applications were rejected considering he spent a season flower picking in Australia.

“There are false claims in the media about people not taking up farming jobs. They’re blaming it on the British working people and it’s not our fault at all,” she complains.

Disappointment reigns

Statistics tell a different story, however. According to charity Concordia, only 150 farm jobs were accepted by British workers in April, following 50,000 initial expressions of interest.

Likewise, The Alliance of Ethical Labour Providers said despite receiving 36,000 applications of interest from British people, only 6,000 had opted to interview for a role.

Adam Kelly, 30, from Surrey, was one applicant who did progress to Concordia’s interview stage.

Made redundant from his job as a sales assistant in March, Kelly applied for both farming and supermarket jobs; industries he figured would need extra hands.

He was baffled by the smartphone app, Spark Hire, used for the recruitment process, calling it “confusing” and “incompetent”. Having previously worked for Sony, Kelly says he believed he was tech-savvy, yet struggled with the glitchy system, which he says caused him to miss out a few questions by accident.

Several weeks passed before he eventually received an invitation and a link to a one-way video interview in late April which would allow the interviewers to see him, but not allow him to see them.

He prepared for his video interview with the professionalism of any other job; he wore a crisp white shirt, chose a well-lit neutral background, and took his time to carefully consider each question.

But Kelly did not hear back for weeks, and when he did it was with the disappointing news that all positions were full.

“I had been made redundant, not furloughed. I was willing to commit to however long it took. I was willing to travel to neighbouring counties. But the whole campaign wasn’t clear what it was looking for. They weren’t doing everything in their power to get you placed somewhere,” he says.

Kelly finally landed a new job as a bank administrator with the NHS in his hometown of Guildford in Surrey in September. It came as a huge relief, almost five months after he had started applying for work.

Lee, however, is still on the hunt for a job.

‘Many Brits are unsuited to the work’

In late April – before the government’s May announcement launching the new Pick for Britain online portal had even been made – recruitment charity Concordia closed its applications page on its website having already been flooded with applications.

An online statement read: “The response to our Feed the Nation campaign has been phenomenal and we are now focusing on supporting the many people who have already successfully applied and completed the interview process, into employment on UK farms.”

HOPS Labour Solutions, the seasonal agricultural recruitment agency, issued a similar message, asking applicants to check the website from May onwards when the season for picking crops such as strawberries, peas and beans would be approaching.

Despite this, Nick Marston, director of British Summer Fruits, a body representing berry growers in the UK, insists the Pick for Britain campaign was successful. At the time, he stressed that unsuccessful applicants should not feel “disheartened”.

“In UK horticulture there are about 70,000 seasonal jobs. Right up until this year, 99 percent were carried out by workers from outside the UK, primarily from Romania and Bulgaria.”

But as the world reached a standstill in April, due to lockdowns and quarantines, there was panic that travel restrictions would prevent the bulk of pickers from flying over. Fears that returnee workers would not arrive in the UK at all reached fever pitch, triggering growers to band together to charter flights from Romania and Bulgaria.

G’s Growers, an independent vegetable producer in East Anglia, for example, was reported to have paid 40,000 pounds (approximately $53,000) for a charter flight to bring in 150 experienced Romanian farm workers to help pick gem lettuces. The company said the Romanian workers would help newly-recruited British workers get “up to speed with the job” and comply with food and hygiene standards.

Employing a majority British workforce was a huge risk, the company said. Its human resources director, Beverly Dixon, emphasised the value of experienced foreign workers. “They will underpin our efficiency as we train up the new British staff. Without them, we would have crops rotting in the field.”

However, fears about a dearth of workers turned out to be premature as, in the end, most returnees from Eastern Europe managed to get a passage to the UK without assistance. Bulgaria resumed commercial flights to the UK from May 1, with Romania following shortly after.

“With the lifting of travel restrictions, the opening of land borders and the re-introduction of some commercial flights, a reasonable proportion of the workers who were contracted to come here did arrive,” says Marston.

“A significant proportion of those workers have now come through – with most farms reporting 70 percent to 80 percent of jobs filled – which means that the total number of picking jobs available to Brits is actually anything between 8,000 and 12,000.

“We shouldn’t do down the fact that in a period where no one else is hiring extra people, at least horticulture is looking for people. But that’s a small number of jobs compared with the number of people who might be looking for work,” he says.

He points to the 1.2 million people who were unemployed in April following COVID-19, and the spiralling number applying for universal credit.

Marston also said the surge in interest had overwhelmed the agricultural industry. In previous years only two out of 10,000 applicants for farm jobs had been from the UK.

On UK recruitment site Totaljobs, there was an 83 percent spike in applications for agricultural jobs in March. Search terms saw significant increases compared with February, including “fruit picker” (338 percent) and “farm worker” (107 percent).

But Marston said there were other issues which prevented British workers from securing these jobs.

“Hardly anybody knows how a farm functions because most people live in cities and towns. So, while we all know what it is going to be like to work behind a bar or work in McDonald’s because we’ve seen other people doing it, a lot of people do not know what a farming job entails,” he explains.

“Many people are unaware that they are unsuited to the work. You need to commit for a substantial period, to be able to work 45 to 50 hours a week. And you need to be reasonably physically fit as you are on your feet all day.”

Marston emphasises that picking is a skilled job, and a worker with experience is likely to pick three times faster than a novice. For this reason, migrant workers who come back year after year – known as “returnees” – are often favoured by farmers.

Pick for Britain’s problem was one of scale. Rather than Britons supplying the main bulk of labour, farmers saw their role as lending additional support in a crisis.

“It’s an important contribution, but it’s obviously not the whole answer,” Marston says.

Source: Al Jazeera