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

How the government scheme to recruit British workers to bring in the harvest fell at the first hurdle.

Farmworkers thin apple trees in preparation for the October harvest [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

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.

Strawberries ripen in rows for a June harvest [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

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.”

Seasonal worker Verity Greenaway, front, and Callum Pearman, both students studying at Durham University, pick Cherries during the annual harvest at New House Farm on July 17, 2020 in Canterbury, England. Many British ‘pickers’ have sought out work in the sector this year, due to the lack of European workers being able to come to the UK because of the COVID-19 pandemic [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

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.

Seasonal worker Ed Thompson picks cherries at New House Farm in Canterbury on July 17, 2020 [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

“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.”

A farm manager stands next to a tractor at a strawberry farm in Kent [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

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.

Seasonal worker Callum Pearman, a student from Durham University, picks cherries during the annual harvest at New House Farm in Canterbury on July 17, 2020 [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

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.

Seasonal workers typically live together in caravan accommodation [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

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.

‘Eastern Europeans are bloomin’ driven’

Guy Poskitt, is one of the largest carrot producers in the country, operating across 6,500 acres (2,630 hectares) of land in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

He is straight-talking, with a no-frills approach to farm life that has helped him win the National Vegetable Grower of the Year award three times. Poskitt likes to “tell it as it is”, which is why he has no problem voicing farmers’ concerns about hiring British workers.

On his farm, 90 percent of the workers driving tractors and operating the heavy machinery are from the UK, while 80 percent of those packing and processing the vegetables in the farm’s pack-house are from abroad.

The foreign workers, therefore, are responsible for the most physically demanding work; washing, sorting and packing tonnes of carrots, parsnips and potatoes.

But Poskitt says this trend is due to the gradual transition to a service-based economy in the UK, not a sudden crisis. Due to lifestyle changes, he says, many Britons are not cut out for the hard graft of farm work.

“Never mind COVID, never mind Brexit, let’s go back 50 years,” he says. “Why did we end up with a workforce of migrant workers doing hotel work, land work, farm work, abattoirs, slaughterhouses? Because the UK economy couldn’t find British workers to do those jobs.”

He pokes fun at the British myth that picking fruit and vegetables is a quaint pass-time, like “a scene from The Darling Buds of May“.

“Lots of UK workers look at it as something nice to do on a sunny afternoon. ‘Oh, there’s a shortage of work, let’s nip down to the local farm and help out in the afternoons because it’s a sunny day’,” he says in his thick Yorkshire accent with a wry smile. “It’s a long way off that mark. Strawberry farms start at 4.30am and finish at 3pm because it gets too hot. They pick six days a week. Is that what you want? Probably not.”

Eastern European workers prepare for the apple harvest in Kent [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

And from Poskitt’s experience of hiring British workers in the past 10 years, they often lacked the gritty drive to meet the needs of the business.

“Abysmal” and “horrendous” are words he uses to describe former British employees who, he found, were prone to disappearing, especially around evenings and weekends.

“People think it’s just about the money, but there’s clear legislation in terms of the living wage. It’s more about the anti-social hours that are needed to meet our customers’ demands. Especially when it comes to weekends. If you come to my farm, you won’t be able to tell if it’s Sunday morning or Monday morning, because it’s just the same.”

Four am starts, a six-day workweek, and paltry paycheques do little to attract British workers. Nor does the reality of on-site accommodation with modest caravans housing several workers at a time. Poskitt says the problem with employing UK workers is retention, rather than recruitment, using a metaphor most will understand. “It’s like a local pub. If you have a bad experience at the one up the road but a new one opens, you wouldn’t go back to the first, would you?”

Though Poskitt adds not all British workers should be “tarred by the same brush” and it is possible to “filter out the good ones”, he sympathises with farmers who are prioritising foreign returnees.

“The reality with Eastern Europeans is they’re bloomin’ driven, they’ll get on the last plane or borrow a car and drive across Europe,” he says. “They try really hard to achieve what they want to achieve.

“Why should they [farmers] get rid of the people that have done them a good job, delivered for their business and take the risk of getting back into a trap?”

‘Garden of England’

In 2020, the process of food production remains a mystery to many in the UK.

Prince Charles’s reprimand in his Pick for Britain campaign – that “food does not appear by magic” – is not fanciful given an increasingly urban population, who are used to food waiting on supermarket shelves, pre-packaged and ready to eat, with little to no idea of how it got there.

However, on one working farm in Kent, the Garden of England, the wheels have turned for decades to deliver the nation its fix of fruit. In June, the strawberry harvest was in full swing.

The family-run farm that supplies apples, pears, strawberries and blackcurrants to household brands such as Sainsbury’s and Ribena employs about 50 seasonal workers.

The subject of how realistic it is to expect British people to take over the harvest from foreign workers has become sensitive. As a result, the co-owner of this farm did not want to be named because of worries about repercussions for telling her side of this story.

She has been working at the farm for more than 30 years, and strawberry farming is in her blood: She hails from a family dedicated to the trade for 132 years.

She runs the farm with her husband and, more recently her daughter as well, who stepped in during lockdown to lend a hand.

Typically, in June each year, the farm selects the ripest strawberries to fill the kiosks of English sporting events, to be drenched in lashings of cream.

COVID-19 may have dampened this summer’s festivities but at the farm, the season was as busy as ever.

Strawberries are packed into boxes and sent to be processed in the packhouse [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

The farmer wears worn jeans, a polo shirt and sturdy boots to cover the miles she walks around the property every day. She begins our tour at a brisk pace, outlining the history of the farm. We pause often, to greet her children, staff, delivery drivers and boisterous spaniels.

In the 1980s, before she inherited the farm, it was her role to recruit seasonal workers for the summer. She would tack up notices in the windows of corner shops to attract local women able to fit in picking work during the school holidays.

“We used to go with a big old lorry (truck) to Sittingbourne and Faversham and people would pile in – toddlers, buggies, toys, ladies, children, grannies, nappy sacks, the whole lot,” she says. “There would be kids wandering up the strawberry rows in nappies with dummies in their mouths. Imagine that now – it wouldn’t happen.”

As regulations tightened, requiring creches on farms among other health and safety rules, farmers could not afford to meet those requirements for casual labourers and it became impossible for the women to keep returning. “It cut the cord for the stay-at-home mums wanting to earn enough to buy a washing machine or get out of the house for a few hours,” she says.

But, she says, this was not the only reason for the shift in working style.

“This was also in the days when the growing season was only six weeks long. Now it lasts for six months because we’ve got clever at growing. The supermarkets want fruit all the time, and people expect it all the time. The growers have adapted to that, but the workforce couldn’t.”

Since then, the farm has relied on a “solid force of returnees” who come from Eastern Europe, usually for six to 10 months at a time, earning minimum wage and paid per piece they pick.

When they return home in the winter, the farmer stays in touch with her employees via Facebook, sending them updates about the farm. Often they ask if they can bring back family members to work with them for the next season.

“It’s a cycle. We love to see them every year because they are trained up. They are really great at adapting – whether it’s picking, thinning apples, pruning fruit, or runner cutting strawberries.”

Employing foreign labour is also extremely practical. Workers living on-site can deal with extreme changes to the weather, such as a sudden hail storm which necessitates covers to be quickly pulled over crops.

So the farmer felt conflicted in the wake of the pandemic when the government drive to hire British workers was rolled out. She worried that it would undermine the jobs of her returnees.

“We didn’t want them to think, ‘Oh god, they’re giving away my job,’ as they really feel it’s their job – because it is their job.”

Four-thousand applications for 12 jobs

However, the farmer says she was caught up in the wave of panic that swept farmers. This pushed her to advertise job vacancies on the recruitment hubs, British Summer Fruits and British Apples and Pears.

Almost immediately, the farm received an influx of applications – 4,000 for just 12 to 20 positions.

After quickly removing the farm from the portals, the Kent farm sent out a blanket email to hopeful candidates, informing them that they were on the waiting list but should apply elsewhere.

“We hope that we treated people fairly but we have no HR department; we are not a recruitment agency. We definitely got a bit muddled with it,” the farmer says.

Taking matters into her own hands, she implemented measures to cope with the virus on the farm. She made workers self-isolate in their accommodation for two weeks when arriving at the farm, before they started work.

She gestures towards the caravan site, where, because it is the afternoon, a dozen pickers have just finished a day’s work, and sit clustered around a table chatting.

It is makeshift but homely. Clothes flap on washing lines and shoes lie abandoned – kicked off after a long day’s work.

Makeshift caravan accommodation is used to house seasonal pickers [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

The green metal of the caravans is long faded, dressed up with lace curtains reminiscent of the 1950s, or an elderly grandmother’s living room. It is a contrast to the Europop which thrums in the background and the bottles of bright orange soda passed around generously.

Despite having just finished a 10-hour shift, the workers are in high spirits and are happy to share their stories.

Andrei*, from Bulgaria, is at the farm for his seventh season; an old hand. Flights from Bulgaria to the UK continued to run throughout the crisis, so he arrived as usual in May.

He does not deny that picking is tough work, but insists there is a reason he comes back year on year. “We’re a family. Here it’s so different, 30 people help each other. Everyone misses you when you’re gone,” he says.

Mostly, though, Andrei talks about the life he has mapped out for himself in England. He has seen iconic landmarks in London and Manchester and, on days off, he has roamed the cobbled streets of Kent’s seaside towns with friends. Lockdown has put a pause on such activities, but he is optimistic about exploring again in the coming years.

After work, he plays pool in the farm’s games room and has recently started taking English lessons from another worker, Daniel*.

At 19, Daniel is one of the youngest workers on the farm. He is also one of the few British workers.

Daniel has been at the farm for the past three summers, in between working ski seasons in the French Alps. He has adapted to the job quickly due to a keen interest in agronomy.

“It’s hard work, like any job you start which you haven’t done before, but now I’ve got the hang of it, it’s automatic,” he says.

However, Daniel has found another role at the farm – dusting off his Teaching English as a Foreign Language skills.

“We’ve done a lot of grammar this week which was daunting. But we learn a lot about our own language. I’ve learned a few words in Romanian and Bulgarian too,” he says.

Daniel voices a common sentiment among workers – that the communal feeling at the farm is “closer to a small family”.

A glance in the pack-house, where older women in indigo aprons and white hair-nets work rhythmically next to a conveyor belt, makes his suggestion seem a little less hackneyed.

The workers here are a meld of Eastern European and British women whose mothers had once worked on the farm. They banter with the delivery drivers while packaging fruit, filling box after box with perfectly ripe strawberries.

It is a well-oiled machine which, apart from COVID-blocking perspex screens between the workers, bears no sign of any sudden labour crisis.

The ‘successful’ applicants

At another farm in Kent, however, the picture is not so harmonious. Herbie Russell, from Bristol, sits down with a sigh, exhausted from a 12-hour shift. He is physically fit and is no stranger to manual labour, but the long hours are beginning to take a toll.

The 23-year-old has been working overtime most nights because the farm he has been placed at has suddenly become short-staffed. The family-owned business, which employs 50 to 100 workers each season, had seen an exodus of workers – both British and foreign – in May amid complaints about poor working conditions.

Unlike other British applicants, Russell had got ahead of the curve, securing a job before the Pick for Britain campaign was rolled out. A recent university graduate, he applied through recruitment agency HOPS in March, in desperate need of money after a stint of volunteer work as an English teacher in Cameroon.

“There was also the fact that many of my friends were doctors and nurses. I was jealous they were doing something quite cool when I was sitting at home. I liked the idea of helping out the nation in a time of crisis.”

Herbie Russell, 23, earns minimum wage as a fruit picker in Kent [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

However, for the same reason that the 30 other British workers on the farm at the beginning of lockdown dwindled to just five, for Russell, the gruelling work was not worth the pay.

Russell and his colleagues were paid “piece rate” by the farm, meaning if they picked below Agricultural Minimum Wage, their employer must make up the rest of their earnings.

In the summer this was approximately 8.20 pounds ($10.89) an hour but, new to picking, Russell says he rarely brought in more than 6.20 pounds ($8.24)-worth of strawberries for each hour he worked.

“They’ll make a big song and dance about it and note it on your paycheque. The speed they expect you to go at is almost superhuman,” Russell says.

And after subtracting money for “bleak” accommodation – caravans without running water or gas – his total wage, of about 350 pounds ($462) a week, was less than he had expected.

Besides mould creeping up the walls and holes where the wind rattled through, Russell says he raised more serious health concerns.

“It was really cold at times; one girl woke up with frostbite on her hands.”

“And they wouldn’t put hand soap in the bathrooms, which is pretty disgusting because we were picking people’s fruit. So, people are going with unwashed hands in a pandemic which is pretty nasty,” he says.

Tensions boiled over with management, especially when workers spoke out about unrealistic picking targets and poor living conditions.

“I understand people need to be spurred on a bit but there are better ways than screaming in someone’s face. But personally, I have got away okay.”

Russell feared that pre-coronavirus there was an even “greater abuse of power” towards foreign workers, away from the critical eyes of British colleagues.

“It was the Eastern Europeans that were treated the worst,” he says. “It was rare they’d pick below minimum wage, but if they ever did they’d get nailed to the wall. That could mean getting sent home for the day so they couldn’t earn any more money, which is quite serious if you’re sending it home. Or threats of firing them or sending them home.”

This farm produces berries in the summer and apples and pears in the autumn months [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

George Zhedrov, 28, from Sofia in Bulgaria, worked at this farm for just less than a month before he had enough and returned home.

On the phone, he is at first relaxed and cheerful. Three months on, he has had a chance to reflect and to put his finger on where it went wrong.

The 28-year-old left Sofia in 2019 to work in a fish factory in the Republic of Ireland. He speaks affectionately about the country and about the warm colleagues who were happy to answer any questions he may have had.

But by March 2020, he wanted a change and was recruited by an agency to work at the farm in Kent.

Employed in the pack-house, he processed the strawberries after they were picked, shifting pallets full of fruit from tractors to fridges and packing machines. Despite doing the same job as other workers, he described being treated as a “second-class person”.

When he casts his memory back to his time on the farm, his voice rises and his tone hardens.

“It wasn’t just me, it was all of the Eastern European workers on the farm,” he says. “The manager didn’t shout at the English workers. To his eyes, we were monkeys from a different place.

“The owner thought that he was God there. People need to show respect for other people, it doesn’t matter if you’re from Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia or anywhere in Eastern Europe. They need to show some respect because you’re still human,” he adds.

Mis-labelling a punnet of strawberries could trigger a slew of verbal abuse – anything from being branded “stupid” to being “yelled at”.

Zhederov says he was one of the few workers who answered back; he had learned English at school and knew his rights from working in Ireland. With his grasp of language came an understanding of the prejudices that Eastern European workers frequently have to contend with in the UK. Comparisons to “criminals” were hurtful, and after four weeks he cut his losses and left.

Asked about squalid living conditions, however, prompts a different reaction. Zhedrov laughs at the mention of cramped accommodation and exhausting hours.

“It’s really strange to be asked this, as living in caravans is fine,” he says, shrugging off the question.

Zhedrov’s difference in perspective extends towards his attitude to pay. “I made a lot of money – a lot of money for me, not for you,” he says.

With one pound sterling is worth more than two Bulgarian lev, Zhedrov says he has made more in the UK than he ever would in his former role as a kitchen fitter at home.

Undeterred by his experience in Kent, he plans to return to England and save for a few years, so he can go back to Bulgaria, buy a modest apartment and start his own business.

However, he says this with an air of uncertainty, as the question of Brexit remains pressing. “Let me tell you, if Britain goes with a no-deal they’ll be missing a lot more people on the farms. British workers would tell me, ‘George, this isn’t for me’. They want to go to the big cities, like London on Manchester.”

Zhedrov’s concern is not solely for his own welfare. “It’s really terrible for you [the British], if Eastern European people need to get passports to come and work it will be a real mess.”

‘Ethical’ labour

HOPS, the labour provider to the farm that Russell and Zhedrov have been working at, stopped supplying staff to this particular farm following complaints. Operations director John Hardman says HOPS is unable to discuss the details of specific cases.

“However, as an ethical recruiter, HOPS takes its workers’ welfare very seriously and all of its member farms are asked to adhere to strict guidelines,” he says.

“In the event of a farm not following these guidelines or meeting the requirements of an audit, HOPS will step in to offer full support to the workers that have been placed there.

“This could involve offering workers a placement at a different farm, if positions are available, as well as discontinuing the supply of labour to a farm that has breached the guidelines.”

Descendants of former summertime pickers process strawberries in the packhouse [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

Like all other agricultural labour providers in the UK, HOPS is registered to the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).

The public body issues licencing standards, covering health and safety, accommodation, pay, transport and the training of workers.

Stringent rules are in place to prevent human rights offences, such as exploitation and trafficking. Nevertheless, there are reports that modern slavery increased during lockdowns.

Responding to a freedom of information request, the GLAA confirmed it had received seven referrals in the agriculture sector from the modern slavery helpline from March to August 2020.

Furthermore, in its annual report, the UK’s GLAA announced the number of victims it describes as “exploited and vulnerable” workers identified in the year 2019 to 2020 had doubled to 15,186 from 7,550 in the previous year. The agency also issued 23 warnings and 43 enforcement notices.

“Despite this clear progress, our responsibilities are greater than ever,” chief executive Michael Rich said when the report was published.

“The current coronavirus crisis has created new opportunities for unscrupulous employers to attempt to flout our regulations. We are alive to these risks and the potential challenges around labour supply as the country begins to slowly ease its lockdown restrictions.”

A British people’s army of fruit pickers? ‘Ludicrous’

Dr Annie Gray, who is based in Cambridgeshire, specialises in the history of food from 1600 onwards. The historian says dreams of returning to a heyday when many British people would spend their summers harvesting are misplaced.

Gray believes shifts in the British economy have been too great – a return to a domestic agricultural workforce would be “absolutely impossible”. Industrialisation and globalisation have revolutionised supply chains, pushing food prices down for decades.

The rose-tinted rhetoric of the second world war is “ludicrous” when the farming crisis is entirely different, and certainly not temporary, she adds.

Strawberries typically ripen from June to August [Frankie Adkins/Al Jazeera]

In the 1950s, when Britain was a net exporter of produce, one-fifth of household income was dedicated to food. Now, it forms only a “vanishingly small” part of our household budget. Supermarkets have slowly squeezed margins and, usually, it is UK farmers who come out at the bottom.

“If we, as a country, are not prepared to pay enough for our food, farmers do not get paid a decent amount, and therefore they cannot pay their workers a large wage,” says an exasperated Gray. “It’s not just that people don’t want to spend more, people don’t realise they need to. Food is not valued as much because we’re divorced from the means of production.”

But if the pandemic did not help the public to understand their food chain, then perhaps the possibility of a no-deal Brexit will. Freedom of movement for EU workers will end on December 31 but a new model for migrant labour has yet to be formulated.

Coronavirus and Brexit have created a perfect storm to disrupt an industry already on its knees, says Gray. Plans for an expansion of the seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme, which will issue thousands of more workers with temporary visas, are being picked over in Parliament. But come January, is this something migrants will be willing to weather if they can find work elsewhere?

“Some form of agreement will have to be worked out whereby migrant labour can come across and work on fields without the need to go through ridiculous amounts of applications or visas,” says Gray. “If the government does not address the migrant labour situation then there will be crops rotting in the fields.”

It is a prognosis heard before – delivered by Prince Charles in his appeal to the nation in May. However, as recent statistics from the National Farming Union confirm, only 11 percent of 2020’s summer farm workers were from the UK and the looming issues of Brexit and coronavirus bring yet more urgency.

Despite a widely publicised campaign for British workers to come forward this summer, it was still foreign workers who picked for Britain.

*Some names have been changed for purposes of anonymity

Source: Al Jazeera