There is no doubt as to the importance migrant seasonal labour has to the UK agriculture and production horticulture industries. Since the 1990s a growing seasonal workforce, predominantly from eastern Europe, has become essential to harvesting in the UK, filling labour gaps and job roles that have fallen out of favour with UK workers.
A recent survey from sector skills council Lantra showed that nearly half of businesses (46.5 per cent) operating in the sector recruited migrant workers, often to permanent positions.
It identified that while many migrant workers are seen to possess relevant skills and experience for the job roles they fill in the UK, in reality the nature, practices and scale of business in the UK means that many employers have to provide training and development for their migrant workforce. Much of the training done is required under legislative and health and safety requirements yet the survey identified that the majority of firms require more information and access to training provision suitable to the needs of their workers, especially in terms of English language and health and safety.
Despite requirements of health and safety law to provide levels of training to staff, the Lantra survey pointed to the fact that few employers want to invest in training simply because migrant workers are mostly employed as temporary staff. Employers were found more willing to invest in training to help workers move on to higher skilled or supervisory positions within the business, indeed the survey showed that the main employment area is in low-skilled roles but with an increasing proportion of workers gaining supervisory and management positions on a permanent basis.
Large-scale businesses employing high levels of seasonal labour tend to bring their training in-house, employing skilled assessors and trainers to carry out induction and training periods for temporary seasonal staff as soon as they arrive on the farm. Smaller firms may not have the resources to do this and rely on outside training providers, but as the Lantra survey shows, many feel more information is needed.
Labour providers themselves recognise this and the more forward thinking of them are starting to develop training schemes and programmes to identify workers' skills gaps and business needs in order to develop training services to suit.
Cambridgeshire salad and vegetable producer G's Marketing has developed an in-depth induction programme for the high level of seasonal migrant workers it brings in to oversee harvesting. Group personnel officer Sharon Cross says the company not only has a legal obligation to supply safety training but also a moral obligation to serve the welfare of their workers. She says: "We have always concentrated on in-house training because we have such a level of people arriving for a short space of time. We have a large number of office staff qualified to carry out the training requirements of our seasonal staff so we can get through the numbers in a quick time.
"We have a legal obligation to highlight safe working procedures but I think we go further, predominantly having identified we have a young workforce with language barriers and it's our duty to ensure we've covered all aspects of health and safety. Legally we go further than required and morally we feel we are at the right level.
"All staff first go through an induction day before starting work, even if they are just a general harvester picking iceberg lettuce. We have developed an in-depth programme, kicking off with rules and regulations of employment, and terms and conditions of accommodation. We then take them through health and safety awareness and food hygiene. All instructors are also qualified in manual handling training."
All this happens on their first day before starting any work. With various languages spoken among the seasonal staff, G's realises the need to overcome language barriers. Cross says: "It's an in-depth programme with test questionnaires at the end of it. Every single piece of information is translated into the languages of our employees. We have Power Point and video presentations either translated or dubbed into the appropriate languages as well."
Following the general comes the more specific. She adds: "As a diverse firm we have a lot of different areas for our employees to work in and we've developed training information to suit each area. For example, we've had a training video produced specifically for our harvesting rigs, again translated. Having watched that, workers are taken down to the rig and shown proper operation. We have in-house videos to suit each job role. We've done this with an outside production company, ensuring they are made to meet our specific requirements. We go to lengths to ensure we can say everyone has understood what we are teaching them."
Acknowledging the high fatality rate within agriculture, G's is keen to prevent any accident happening during the harvest. As such, all practical and video demonstrations are backed up by classroom safety sessions. Any information related to safe working procedures is translated into the relevant language for the employee and they are then taken through each piece of information, which they sign off having been tested.
Setting out standard procedures
Herefordshire soft fruit producer AJ&CI Snell similarly provides health and safety training for its seasonal staff, backed by its marketing group Berry Gardens. Working with retailers, Berry Gardens has set out procedures on aspects of quality and picker training and has developed training programmes backed by DVD presentations, which are distributed to growers in the group. Recognising the growing number of training options within the industry, the business out-sources more specialist training. Partner Christine Snell explains: "We run some training programmes determined through Berry Gardens. They provide DVDs and training programmes which we deliver as a standard approach to ensure all our students are picking correctly and that health and safety and hygiene procedures are followed. We usually need additional training in forklift truck and minibus driving. Work in our pack house also requires specific training in areas like labelling and management of lines. Here we use outside training providers."
Snell believes training options are getting better for the industry, and welcomes a move by student labour provider Concordia, which now tests students in their home country for the D1 minibus driver licence before they even come to the UK.
"It's an area of training that is seeing increased demand from our customers," she says. "We are so heavily audited by the retailers these days that we need to have these training programmes in place to ensure we meet their criteria. We were audited recently and the retailer spent a great deal of time going over the training certificates of our staff. We need trained staff to comply with the law but at the same time our customers are demanding competent training to set the standard of safety - nasty accidents have happened in the industry caused by untrained staff operating vehicles and machinery."
Snell says on the whole the industry is working towards a better standard of training for workers, but feels there may be discrepancies between small and large firms alongside geographical differences. She said: "As part of Berry Gardens we're covered by the assistance in health and safety training packages they provide, but there are lots of small growers out there who aren't and they should have the opportunity to access similar schemes. Geographically, I'm not sure how even it is either. Here in Hereford we're well covered as we have a high number of students visiting the area for seasonal work. Kent and the eastern counties are likely to be the same but I'm not sure how things would be further afield."
A flexible framework for training
Looking to quantify the industry's training needs and develop a flexible framework of relevant training for the sector, Lantra has created a sector qualification strategy to ensure employers have the right people qualified and experienced to input into the businesses they work in. Project co-ordinator Nanette Pierce says: "We have identified that training and resulting qualifications need to be relevant and they need to be delivered flexibly. We also need to define training and qualifications that are not conducted by formal training providers - a lot of very good in-house training goes on and we're looking at how we can recognise that.
"We've identified that a significant portion of our workforce are seasonal migrant workers and we are conducting research into the impact they have on the sector. It's hoped that with the development of flexible training and qualifications that could be carried out in small units we can then start to incorporate the needs of our migrant and seasonal workers."
Realising that businesses require seasonal staff that are responsive to new training, Concordia has developed the Student Worker Education Programme (SWEP) leading to a UK certificate in agriculture and horticulture. Students of agriculture and horticulture from any country can come to the UK as part of their university course and gain valuable experience and training while working for UK businesses. The businesses in return receive dedicated staff, keen to work and keen to learn new techniques and principles. Concordia education and training manager Anna Tyrrel says: "It was clear from roadshows we ran with employers last year that what businesses want is not low-skilled labour but seasonal labour that is highly trainable and gets up to speed on complex tasks quickly. That's where these agricultural students from overseas come into it - they already have skills, they are bright and intelligent and they are trainable. Employers don't want staff they would find hard to train in a short space of time.
"We are developing a framework of training provision aimed at supporting migrant workers. This starts by helping prepare workers in their home country, mainly looking at health and safety.
"Our new provision aimed at students of agriculture and horticulture allows them to take part of their university degree course while working in the UK. They study on a sandwich course while here and this gives them credits for their degree course in their home country. They gain experience of UK agriculture, carry out their own university assignments and also attend seminars, workshops and language training while they're here."