The success of a pilot scheme to recruit British workers to the fresh-produce sector actually strengthens the case for a new Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme (SAWS) to provide labour from overseas, a major labour provider to the industry has claimed.
HOPS Labour Solutions, together with the NFU, Job Centre Plus, land-based colleges and farms themselves, has developed what it calls a pre-employment training programme to get unemployed British people into the industry, which has already chalked up some successes.
But HOPS operations manager Laura Savage told Grower: "We couldn't have got it off the ground without SAWS and it will never replace SAWS - there's no way that it can get the numbers of people needed. SAWS remains vital for the UK produce industry because it gives growers the peace of mind that their crops will be picked."
She continued: "I would love to see a revised SAWS that requires a UK contingent" because this would make explicit the connection between migrant and permanent UK labour - a point she intends to make to employment minister Mark Hoban later this month.
The current SAWS is due to expire at the end of this year and as yet no successor scheme has been confirmed.
Under the pilot scheme run by HOPS, unemployed people are given a twoto three-week training course, subject to interview, with recruits guaranteed a position in the industry.
"Halfway through the pilot, more than 100 people have started the course, with around 80 successfully completing and being offered jobs," Savage explained.
"A few are already moving up through the ranks and those farms are now looking for other UK people to replace them, while others have gone straight in as drivers or into machinery maintenance. Perceptions are starting to change - it has proved that UK workers are not all lazy."
Relevant training and clear career progression have made the difference, she said. "In the past, 70-80 per cent of UK workers haven't worked out, or they haven't even shown up. Progression is key but for that, getting farm buy-in is crucial."
As well as the unemployed, HOPS is now targeting students on land-based courses (see box), offering two-day introductions to work in the fresh-produce sector that are supported by the colleges themselves.
Those who have already entered the industry via this route "move up even quicker than the unemployed", added Savage.
Two-day introductions Students' reactions
Comments from students at a recent HOPS Labour Solutions presentation:
- "There aren't many paid jobs in conservation, so for me this work would bridge a gap. The wages on offer surprised me."
- "I could be lured by this. The opportunity to work while you travel is a big factor."
- "It's not for me - I would rather work on a small mixed farm where you are valued as an individual."